‘The Bad Testament’…there it is. Right in front of your eyes in the title to his latest album Scott H. Biram lays it out for all to see. Biram is on a mission to tell it like it is, take no prisoners and bring his testament to the people. It won’t be an easy ride, people who can’t handle a little profanity better look away now, or wait for the ‘Clean’ version, but I very much doubt that’ll be coming along anytime soon as Biram doesn’t strike me as someone who likes to compromise.
Texan native Scott H. Biram is a survivor both musically and physically. ‘The Bad Testament’ is his tenth full length release (his sixth under the Bloodshot imprint) in a solo career that dates back to 2000 (he’d previously played in punk and bluegrass bands, including one troupe that went by the name Bluegrass Drive-By which sounds pretty cool). Hooking up with Bloodshot Records seems like a match made in heaven as both artist and label have a healthy disrespect for genre labels which is always to be applauded. Why physically? Well in 2003 Biram was involved in a head-on collision with a big-rig semi-truck (articulated lorry to UK readers) which resulted in multiple broken bones (femur, knee, foot and arm) major internal injuries and the removal of a foot and a half of intestine. Obviously very lucky to be alive the man was back on stage a month later in a wheelchair still attached to his I.V. With his one-man band approach (ancient Gibson guitar, harmonica and a stompin’ left foot) coupled with a host of strong tunes, that draw inspiration from old-school blues and country, Biram is a man seemingly born a few decades too late but the result is a punk rock fuelled take on blues and Americana that is more jet black than blue.
‘Set Me Free’ opens the book of ‘The Bad Testament’ with driving electric guitar powering a god fearing lyric that channels the best of classic country and blues. If Johnny Cash was still with us to make albums with Rick Rubin he’d be giving Biram a call while ‘Still Around’ follows and may dial the guitars back but the conviction with which Biram delivers loses nothing in the transition. You can’t beat a good drinking song and ‘Red Wine’ is the perfect example of the Biram approach. He’s in very fine voice as he finds inspiration from Haggard and Rodgers but allows his abrasive, fuzzy electric guitar lines to entangle the song resulting is a definite album highlight. ‘TrainWrecker’ follows and scared the life out of me in a hostile 2.36 that has all Biram’s punk roots on display and features a guitar solo so ramshackle that the words of the late Eric Morecambe came to mind “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”. It works but it might take anyone new to the man and his work a moment to tune in.
The wonderfully harmonica driven ‘Long Old Time’ finds our protagonist in a prison cell doing time “The man said they’re gonna throw the key away” while his significant other is “down in the cold, cold ground”. The vitriolic ‘Swift Driftin’’ doesn’t exactly take any prisoners as Biram rails against a particular nasty member of humanity “Takes a real piece of shit to be a real piece of shit” and “You’ll still be dying when you’re lying in your grave”. Things take a folky turn as Biram the troubadour steps up to the mic for ‘Righteous Ways’ which benefits from some quite lovely guitar playing (finger picked acoustic one moment, full on electric thrash the next Biram will keep you guessing).
The variety of sounds on ‘The Bad Testament’ is one of the strengths of the album but things get a little confused musically on the later part of the record as swirling organ is added to the mix for ‘Crippled & Crazy’ while ‘True Religion’ is a gospel foot stompin’ / hand clappin’ revivalist meeting of a song that features multiple voices including an especially striking bass vocal. These tracks do work well but the real problem is the album concludes with a trio of instrumental tracks ‘Hit the River’ could be a brilliant slab of slide guitar boogie but at 1.27 goes nowhere, which is a real missed opportunity, while the stomp of ‘Pressin’ On’ and ‘’What Doesn’t Kill You’ repeats the idea with wailing harmonica and snatches of vocal. Unfortunately the tracks are all fragments of ideas which would have benefitted greatly from further exploration which, I’d guess, would happen in a live setting.
Scott H. Biram is a man who knows his own mind and with that aforementioned ability to bring a punk ethos to classic blues and country has delivered a fine record that, despite my quibbles about the track listing is very worthy of your attention. You’ll need an open mind but it’ll be worth it.