BLOODY HEELS – Rotten Romance

Latvian rockers Bloody Heels began carving themselves a niche within the hard rock scene in 2012, but it was only with the release of their third record ‘Ignite The Sky’ that they really attracted wider attention. That album, their first for Frontiers, potentially placed them in the hard rock ranks alongside Hell In The Club, and really upped the ante with regards to their chorus writing. It was all very old fashioned, but that, in many ways, was the whole point. Their celebration of all things big haired and carefree actually created a great tribute to the hard rock glory days of 1987-1991, and as such, attracted a keen audience who still wanted to hear old school rock churned out with a real enthusiasm.

2022’s ‘Rotten Romance’ offers eleven more tracks in a retro vein, and offers a lot of massive chorus hooks that are easily recognisable as Bloody Heels’ fare. Rather than get stuck in a rut and wheel out a very similar album, though, the band have taken many of their eighties influences and mixed them with a heavier edge in places, and in a couple of instances, have even opted for a massive 90s crunch. From the moment ‘Dream Killers’ fades in with a selection of muted chords and subsequently launches itself head first into a riff that combines the heaviness of ‘Slave To The Grind’ era Skid Row with the drive of classic Dokken, it’s clear that Bloody Heels mean business. The track’s riff sets itself in place quickly – suggesting it’ll be everything, and even when sounding heavier than anything on ‘Ignite The Sky’, it sounds like classic Heels – but there’s a welcome twist with a huge, harmonic chorus bringing in more of an AOR feel. This, naturally, fills any musical gaps and places a greater emphasis on a brilliant vocal. These musical moments make this opener feel very complete, and that’s before shifting into a riff that briefly tips the hat to Jan Cyrka’s ‘Western Eyes’ and a couple of thrashier riffs that show how the band can turn their collective hand to something even heavier without missing a step. Then, there’s a coda loaded with a massive whoah-like harmony. It’s a performance that covers a lot of ground, and indeed, ‘Dream Killers’ has very much a kitchen sink production, but somehow – maybe thanks to a great guitar sound throughout – it never feels too bombastic or in any way overdone.

The title cut keeps up the quality threshold with a brilliant hard rocker that makes the very best from a punchy riff where resident six-stringer Harry Rivers mixes a genuine crunch with an occasional horsey squeal. In addition to a great riff or two, his introduction of a semi-bluesy solo really adds a new dimension to a tried and tested hard rock sound, whilst frontman Vicky White delivers a semi-gruff performance that more than suits the job in hand. The way Bloody Heels have ploughed forward and tempered many of their 80s-centric sounds with an occasional 90s flourish suggests a band who aren’t keen to be stuck in a rut, but any harder edges never come at the expense of great melodies. A couple of plays marks this track as being catchy without ever being annoying, and its weighty sound genuinely adds something great to the band’s growing catalogue. ‘Crow’s Lullaby’, meanwhile, opens with a jagged riff which quickly morphs into a heavy 90s chug, creating the perfect backdrop a moody vocal. Half a world away from the previous album’s Skid Row-isms, its great to hear the band adapting, and for those concerned about the heavier approach, there’s plenty about the way a clean ringing guitar cries above the sledgehammer groove that maintains musical interest. Despite being host to one of the album’s strongest riffs, the real highlight comes from the featured guitar solo which harks back to the Bloody Heels’ old school approach with a flurry of busy notes, clean tones and big haired showboating, before sliding effortlessly into a few bars of heavy string bent sounds. In terms of marrying classic melodic metal riffs with a punchy, more contemporary sound, this is absolutely flawless.

Scaling back everything to present a much more “classic” sounding melodic metal riff, ‘The Velvet’ throws semi-bluesy leads over some solid, almost tribal rhythms in places, whilst sounding a lot like a hybrid of 90s era Dokken meeting Velvet Revolver. For lovers of meaty sounding melodic rock and metal, the juxtaposition of heavier riffs with taut harmonies will be enough to make this a standout, but a (largely) instrumental section with soaring lead guitars and atmospheric pianos even hints at a couple of unexpected proggier textures. Obviously, we’re not talking the predictable Floyd/Yes sound here, but there are faint traces of sounds worthy of Godsticks and Pineapple Thief. Maybe it isn’t deliberate; maybe its just a musical sting that works rather than a plan for a new direction, but it sounds great, and firmly suggests a lot more thought has gone into some of this album’s musical arrangements than on previous Bloody Heels albums. Another heavier number, ‘Hour of Sinners’ takes a groove metal rhythm and peppers it with a collection of horsey squeals from the guitar before counterbalancing the dirty sound with a full compliment of gang vocals, ensuring a big hook takes prominence. As with ‘Crow’s Lullaby’, a flashy lead guitar break does its best to outshine everything else, but in time, the simple chorus proves capable of leaving something of an earworm. Whether deliberate or not, Bloody Heels manage to create a much more appealing take on a groove-centric sound than label-mates KXM, who appeared to be aiming for this kind of sound on their 2019 album ‘Circle of Dolls’ but often came up short in the song writing and memorability stakes.

Taking influence from an earlier “party rock” vibe, ‘Burning Bridges’ ploughs ahead with a buoyant riff and chopping guitar sounds, building an arrangement that’s three parts Animal Drive and one part Dokken. With a sharp and retro riff bolstered by a world of gang vocals and – latterly – a brilliant mid-tempo groove and howling lead guitar, the no-frills hard rock sets up a really impressive sound. In terms of no-frills Heels, it’s fairly solid, and the same can be said for ‘Mirror Mirror’ tapping into more of the same. It manages to feel quite different, though, thanks to a couple of quieter interludes and an even sharper hook. A couple of listens in, it’s actually the throbbing bass and hefty drum sound which leave the strongest impression, although at this point, there’s little doubt regarding Bloody Heels’ musical credentials. They were always a band with no weak links, but due to the slightly heavier sound that dominates most of ‘Rotten Romance’, it finally hits home how great they really are.

Even when moving towards the end of a very solid album, there’s no real sign of a quality dip, and in fact, ‘Angels Crying’ provides a real highlight with a number that pushes the heavier aspects of the Bloody Heels sound throughout. The opening bass riff captures a brilliant bottom end sound that calls back to Dokken’s ‘Dysfunctional’ album and Warrant’s opinion splitting ‘Ultraphobic’ before wheeling out an unashamedly heavy guitar riff that sounds like a mix of Animal Drive and ‘Dirt’ era Alice In Chains. Although some cloth-eared melodic rock fans might whine about the “grungier” aspects of this performance, there’s plenty within the four minutes that sounds incredibly natural for the band, and the chorus harmonies alone provide a very strong link with a Bloody Heels’ past. Allowing the listener to wind down – albeit briefly – the album’s closer ‘Oblivion’ provides a massive twist on the usual AOR ballad by placing a clean and soulful vocal over a selection of wandering synths, before stretching into a mid tempo workout where a lighter guitar chug brings power without force. However, at the point you’re convinced this is a straight up ballad, everything turns on a sixpence to reveal a groove that introduces hard edges. Retaining the slow pace, the harder sound provides a brilliant backdrop for a choir of vocals presented in an almost anthemic rock mood. In the main, it sounds like the sort of thing that would be a great fit for a live set. What it isn’t, of course, is an identikit rock ballad, or in any way a quick rehash of anything Bloody Heels have recorded and released before.

With a set of massive riffs and chorus hooks that hit in quick succession, this album marks a very welcome return for Bloody Heels. The reliance on pure late 80s nostalgia is far less obvious, and the shift into a darker sound all round could even attract new listeners who enjoy things of a slightly heavier persuasion. With ‘Rotten Romance’s big, crisp production further making the songs come alive, this is a recording that’ll certainly please a huge spectrum of melodic metal fans. Granted, there are a couple of moments where a voyage into a retro 90s sound won’t necessarily sit well with those who want wall-to-wall choruses from 1989, but it’s great to hear Bloody Heels trying something different. The bulk of this album still doesn’t care much for being fashionable, but if you’re a huge fan of the much missed Animal Drive, Lynch Mob during their heavier phase(s) and 90s era Dokken, it’s a fantastic release that’s almost guaranteed to please.

Buy the album here: BLOODY HEELS – Rotten Romance

June 2022