Melodic hard rock has had its time. There’s no denying that it still lives and, to some degree, thrives but its glory days are long, long gone. Its current state isn’t helped by fast-buck-making labels and a certain sort of purist fan that simply won’t allow any of these artists to move away from a hackneyed, formulaic sound. So, new releases from bands that have been plying their trade for thirty years more often fill me with a sense of sorrow than a sense of joy. Not so with the latest Riverdogs album, California. This is a record that might just be too good for the classic rock fraternity to properly deserve.
Even in 1990 the Riverdogs didn’t fit alongside the big-haired bands they were inevitably associated with, their earthy and soulful sound owing more to southern American blues than to the rise of heavy metal. However, the rock pedigree of guitarist Vivian Campbell - along with the length of the band’s hair - somehow sealed their fate. And so, here they are on the Frontiers label with California, their first album since 2011’s World Gone Mad and only their third studio release since their twenty-seven year-old debut.
Existing fans be warned, California is heavy, man. The guitars are very upfront and Mr Campbell gets to let rip in accordance with his rock royalty status (and why not? - Campbell’s frustration at always having to play second fiddle to Def Leppard’s Phil Collen is well-documented) but for me, vocalist Rob Lamothe holds the key to the album’s charm. His string of consistently rewarding acoustic-driven solo releases show an introspective, gentle and poetic side (three words that aren’t often uttered in the world of hard rock) and he’s managed to transfer much of that nuance onto this, an altogether different sort of record. As a result, this is a rock album with more light and shade than most, helped not only by Lamothe’s songwriting skill but also by his ability to move comfortably between hushed intimacy and throaty howl.
Opener ‘American Dream’ is a pounding, brainless rocker - I’m tempted to just ignore it as a misstep because the next four tracks are by contrast a total delight. From the bristling, energetic rock of ‘The Revolution Starts Tonight’ and the slow swaggering blues of ‘Something Inside’ to the feelgood ‘Golden Glow’ and the self-aware ‘You’re Too Rock n Roll’, these are just perfectly crafted, timeless rock songs.
The Zeppelin-flavoured ‘The Heart Is A Mindless Bird’ promises much but descends into an all-out shred-fest which is something of a disappointment, as is the blunt metal riffage of ‘Searching For A Signal’ - perhaps that opening track wasn’t a misstep after all - but things get back on track with the more political ‘Welcome To The New Disaster’ (think Tesla at their best) and the gloriously singalong ‘Ten Thousand Reasons’ which features another extended solo - thankfully this time less gratuitous. The stripped back verses of album closer ‘I Don’t Know Anything’ are perfectly balanced by Campbell’s wailsome guitar refrain which serves as a chorus in between. As a result, this is one of the most effective songs California has to offer and something of a personal favourite.
If you like your melodic rock to have a bit more to it than nostalgia and stylistic box-ticking then California will no doubt meet with your approval. If you like Americana with serious cojones you’ll be equally pleased. It’s by no means faultless but California is by far the classiest hard rock album I’ve heard all year.
Review by Rich Barnard.