It’s funny – growing up, the southern variety was always my least favorite subcategory of classic rock. Now it’s become my preferred variety of contemporary metal. And there is a lot of great heavy stuff to have come out of the south in the past couple of decades, but it’s still no accident that the comparison is only occurring to me now, most likely because Valkyrie’s latest full-length release, Shadows, is not only distinctly southern, but distinctly classic rock as well.
So why is it that, despite that fact that I’ve never really liked Lynyrd Skynyrd, I can’t ignore the fact that Valkyrie’s sound, a sound which I am peremptorily inclined to enjoy, is directly descended from the beer bellied, tobacco-spittin’, pickin’ and a’ grinnin’ good old boys who are responsible for “Gimme Three Steps” and “Free Bird”? Well, I’ve thought about it, and I think the answer lies somewhere in what I consider a fundamental dichotomy between the two primary Lynyrd Skynyrd song models: the raucous boogie and the sappy ballad. The two songs listed above are great examples of each, respectively. Also falling into the former category are “What’s Your Name”, “Don’t Ask Me No Questions”, and others, while to the latter we of course relegate “Simple Man”, “Tuesday’s Gone”, etc. It’s as if everyone in the bar has had either 4 drinks, or 11, and to someone as viciously snobbish as myself, each of these archetypes is a bit too much a caricature of itself.
The Skynyrd songs that I do like – songs like “Give me Back my Bullets”, and “Workin’ for MCA” – I find appealing because they don’t fall into either extreme, but rather somewhere in the middle, taking the seriousness of the ballad, blending it with the energy of the boogie, and producing something which, in my opinion, is far less laughable, and far more badass. And I think, for the most part, that Shadows manages to do a very similar thing. That’s probably why I like it so much, because it maintains such an intricate balance of exuberance and earnestness, without ever leaning too far either way. It’s a record that feels overcast without ever feeling dismal, and a band that can let loose without ever goofing off.
The other reason I like it so much is the guitars; this is a guitar album, period. Brothers-in-arms Jake and Pete Adams make this clear from the get-go, as kickoff track “Mountain Stomp” has one soloing over riffage from the other within its first 15 seconds. Yet it’s not until after the first chorus (still pretty early on, all things considered) that we get a first taste of Valkyrie’s strongest weapon: GUITAR HARMONIES. And here it’s just that, a taste, but as we get deeper into song, and eventually deeper into the entire album, we see what a crucial role dueling axe leads play in the effect and force of this record. Around the two-and-a-half minute mark, “Mountain Stomp” launches a double-time, mini-marathon of double fretboard acrobatics that twist, dive, and soar for a full 2 minutes before effortlessly landing back on the song’s main riff and promptly calling it a day.
Never one to hide from their (presumable) heroes, the Adams Brothers’ guitar tendencies are equal parts Allman/Betts and Murray/Smith. And I say this not only because Valkyrie blends classic southern rock with contemporary metal, or that they simply happen to have two guys playing lead at the same time, but because their collective guitar work is decidedly smart. Another great example is “Shadow of Reality”, where once again we see Adams & Adams running through the motions with a couple of verse/chorus cycles before saying, “alright, enough fucking around”, and launching back into what they do best. It’s a 6-minute song, but the last 4 of those minutes (that’s a full two-thirds) consist of traded solos and intricate harmonies, and it’s all fucking golden. These aren’t your dad’s, “gee whiz let’s throw a third on it” guitar harmonies; they’re intelligent, and they’re expertly crafted, and they’re downright beautiful in places.
When they’re not busy twiddly-tweedling away, the other thing that Valkyrie seem very much at home with is the loose groove. They downshift the tempo as early as the 2nd song, “Golden Age”, which is as successful in its reserve as “Mountain Stomp” was in its tenacity. Also more on the laid-back side of things is personal favorite “Temple”, which I like for its refutation of the hypothesis that if you’re going to slow things down, you better dumb things down. Despite being built on a lazy groove, this track is nonetheless able to emerge as one of the proggiest on the album, with a great deal more tonal complexity than you might expect from swampy southern stoner rock, as well as some very deft, very precise playing from the band’s rhythm section, especially as things heat up towards the end. Did I mention this band has a rhythm section?
I had really wanted to get this review up before the album’s release date (5/17), but it’s been a busy couple of weeks. However, I’m almost glad I had to wait, because I can tell how much it’s grown on me. Not that I didn’t like it at first – I sure did – but it’s not a “jump right out and bash your face” album as much as it is a “sit back, breathe deep, and enjoy” album. I’m finishing up this review on a bus through western Massachusetts, and while the road trip is a rare privilege for Brooklynites, it feels like that last rite of passage needed to really get a record like Shadows. So, if the luxury is available to you, I suggest you get in a car and bump this sucker. Or whatever, I don’t fucking care, listen to it through headphones in the bath. Just listen to it:
P.S. I’m sorry if it seemed like I was knocking thirds before. Thirds are great, I love ‘em. Without thirds we’d lose about 65% of Leviathan and that would be a damn shame. This album ends on one of the best thirds I’ve heard in a long time. SO MAJOR.
Go here to get your hands on this wonderful album.