Good bands, like a really fine Cabernet Sauvignon, truly do get better with age, improving on the palate as they in turn develop and mature: but, like wine, they also need the right environment in which to do so – and, with a new three-album deal with Napalm Records tucked under their belts, and the atmosphere of Castile-La Mancha as the backdrop for recording, this fifth album from Norn Iron’s most famous hard rock export of recent years sees The Answer ease into maturity with a cocky swagger, one eye on the past from which they have evolved and a confident sassiness as to where exactly they find themselves in the pantheon of wannabe rock ‘n’f’n’ roll gods at this particular moment in their decade-long career.
Having spent much of that ten years or so crafting a sound that benevolently evokes the era of Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie, et al, ‘Raise A Little Hell’ sees the Downpatrick quartet take their sound down a darker, more mysterious alley – one which is slightly mellower and in places more experimental than it’s, well, more straightforward hell-raising predecessors. It’s still very recognizable as The Answer, especially in its dirtier, growlier moments, but also one which sees the band spread their wings with the grace of a falcon gyrating above the Cavehill…
‘Long Live The Renegades’ gets the album off to the strongest possible start: Micky Waters’ dirty bass line kicks in right on Cormac Neeson’s count of ‘3/4’, before Paul Mahon’s initial guitar riff strongly and immediately evokes that from ‘Woman From Tokyo’: but, that is only a passing marker – and one which also summarizes what is an overall much darker, denser yet simultaneously joyous feel to this opus. Neeson’s vocals soar and sweep magnificently, foresaking his more recognizable grittiness for an easier, less forced style, while Mahon’s guitar grunts and growls with an almost animalistic aggression. ‘The Other Side’ slips and slides, snarls and snaps while at the same time thumping and grinding its way into your subconscious, while ‘Aristocrat’ mixes ‘II’-era Zeppelin, right from the ‘Dazed And Confused’ styled bowed intro chords, with early Whitesnake, right down to its tongue-in-cheek single-entendre lyrical leaning.
‘Cigarettes & Regret’ is the first real surprise of the album: Neeson’s vocal is sublime in its silkiness, and smoother than my nine month-old grandson’s bum, and is coupled with an equally beautiful melody from Mahon, while the pounding psychedelia of ‘Last Days Of Summer’ twists and winds around and within itself, disappearing off in tangents and then coming back into its main mien in what is one of the most experimental tracks The Answer have recorded to date. Things then take a decidedly weird turn with ‘Strange Kinda Nothing’: to be brutally honest, as a long time fan of the band, I genuinely cannot make up my mind about this particular song, especially as it sounds absolutely nothing like The Answer; its winding riff is tight and neatly harmonic, while Neeson’s vocals are at their most relaxed ever, as the song drifts along on a melancholic miasma all of its own.
‘I Am What I Am’ is a complete album filler, building from a DC-ish riff and featuring a very ‘70s glam rock – and thus cringeworthy – gang vocal chorus, it is rescued by another gritty geetar riff and a soaring solo from Mr Mahon. ‘Whiplash’ is much more of a traditional rocker, but is not overly outstanding in the grand scheme of the overall context of the album, but is the type of mid-pacer that could make for a pretty decent crowd-pleasing anthem in the live environment, while ‘Gone Too Long’ sees Neeson deliver a deeply apologetic and passionate lyric over a fairly standard mid-paced blues rock groove, which also sees Mahon deliver the sort of acerbically precise solo which could quite easily have been ripped from the finer moments of Slash’s repertoire.
‘Red’ is another confusing number, lying somewhere between AOR-esque big-chorus big-melody swagger and traditional commercial hard blues – coupled with one of the most cliched lyrical couplets Neeson has yet produced – before that swagger well and truly strolls back into the room with the sauntering bottleneck blooze of ‘I Am Cured’, which evokes the spirit of the Delta via the dirty back streets of Belfast and is a song which could, in due course, rival ‘Preachin’ for its down-on-your-knees sweat and passion during The Answer’s live shows. The closing title track belies its name, as it’s another surprisingly laidback heavy blues workout, but possessing of a dark undercurrent which suggests not only its initially impressionist hedonistic theme but something deeper and much more nocturnally suggestive in its underlying theme.
Usually an Answer album grabs you by the balls immediately and shakes you violently into an almost allergic reaction to its infectiousness: this time around, it is a much more complex disease which invades your system and worms its way through you with the ultimately irresistible force of the most virulent virus.
There is a plethora of bands – from Blackberry Smoke to Rival Sons – attempting to revive that classic early- to mid-Seventies heavy blooze sound, to varying degrees of success; even with a patchy album such as ‘Raise A Little Hell’, The Answer evoke that era with an ear for the heavier end of that descriptive while retaining the sincerest blues drawn from the deepest well of their Celtic heritage.
‘Raise A Little Hell’ is released by Napalm Records on March 9 in the UK and Europe, and March 10 in North America.
Long Live The Renegades / The Other Side / Aristocrat / Cigarettes & Regret / Last Days Of Summer / Strange Kinda’ Nothing / I Am What I Am / Whiplash / Gone Too Long / Red / I Am Cured / Raise A Little Hell
Recommended listening: ‘Cigarettes & Regret’ or ‘Aristocrat’
The Answer undertake a full UK headline tour next month, kicking off with a “hometown” show at Belfast’s Limelight 2 on Friday March 6. Full tour dates are as follows:
Friday 6 March – Belfast, Limelight 2
Saturday 7 March – Dublin, Whelans
Monday 9 March – Manchester, Academy 3
Tuesday 10 March – Leeds, The Key Club
Wednesday 11 March – York, Fibbers
Thursday 12 March – Aberdeen, The Lemon Tree
Friday 13 March – Glasgow, The Garage
Saturday 14 March – Newcastle, Riverside
Monday 16 March – Grimsby, Yardbirds
Tuesday 17 March – Liverpool, Arts Club
Wednesday 18 March – Southend, Chinnery’s
Thursday 19 March – Nottingham, Rescue Rooms
Friday 20 March – Birmingham, Institute
Saturday 21 March – Sheffield, The Corporation
Monday 23 March – Norwich, Waterfront
Tuesday 24 March – Bristol, Motion
Wednesday 25 March – Brighton, Concorde 2
Thursday 26 March – London, O2 Academy Islington
Friday 27 March – Exeter, Lemon Grove
Saturday 28 March – Southampton, 1865