AC/DC meets James Bluntby Roger Young / 29.04.2011
Full of bombast yet strangely mellow, aKing’s latest album seems to channel the radio rock of the early eighties; many of the tracks would not be out of place on a Foreigner or Toto album. In some ways the album feels like a paean to the power ballads their parents must have listened to; music that if you listen to now, has very few stand out tracks.
Facing the challenge of a line-up change as well as the inevitable questions that come with third album blues: Do we do it like the last two? Where do we go? Will we lose our audience through boredom if we don’t change? Will we lose them if we explore other directions? It’s clear that aKing have made a turn away toward a heavier rock sound. It’s a brave step but not an entirely successful one. The Red Blooded Years will, if anything, represent a step in aKing’s evolution rather than be remembered as a great album.
Generally, it suffers from an over reliance on the guitar and sequencer sounds, Drummer Snake Venter seems to have been pushed into the background. What was so successful about the previous albums was the interplay between Laudo’s lyrical oddities and Venter’s ability to bring nuance into a standard 4/4-rock timing. This album swings from pulsing sequencer swells into heavy guitar riff walls often losing Liebenburg’s vocals in the murk. It’s also an album that would have benefited from fewer tracks; at least a third of the songs like “First Brush”, “Any Other Way” and “Kick Me” contain the germs of good ideas that end up being preludes to more guitar and vocal murk. It feels like complacency set in half way through the process and some songs were not completed but abandoned too early. It’s not a bad album per se, but by aKing’s standards, a decidedly average one.
Let’s assume aKing set out to make a radio friendly rock album filled with sing along crowd pleasers; how effective is The Red Blooded Years on this basis alone?
“Catch A Light” opens the album with a synth and sequencer build progressing to a rocky chug, Laudo going from mumbly and unconvincing to stadium rock shouty imploring, “Are you listening? Catch a light for me.” More than anything the track serves as an announcement of the album’s sound, which is mostly early AC/DC meets James Blunt. The single “The Runaround” is a stadium rocker in the Def Leppard mode; it’s paced and allows all band members their moments. Lyrically, as usual, it contains verses of lyrics so ambiguous as to render them almost nonsensical which then lead into a rousing chorus. Laudo’s lyrics are a large part of aKing’s appeal, the ambiguity allows the listener to impose their own meaning thereby allowing for universal appeal. “Cut Throat Tongue and Razor” contains the memorable line, “The nuts and bolts of a pipe bomb wedding.” It’s a great and impenetrable lyric in a hard rocking grinding song that marks the height of the interplay between drums and guitar on the album. Both “Kick Me” (again with a great lyric “Even the worst of us look lovely in the dark”) and “So Close” fall too easily into rock bombast and want for proper choruses.
“Holding On” is a power ballad in the classic sense with a simple readable lyrical theme supported by long fading guitar riffs. It’s a track fit for wind machines and rock poses and possesses an earnestness that seems lacking on many of the other tracks. I can almost see them meaning this one. “All In The Wind” opens with a cheesy keys riff that wouldn’t be out of place on a mockumentary of an imaginary 80’s hair band. It’s another track where Laudo’s vocal performance brings the whole thing together. Stripped of the bluster of earlier tracks, laid back and owning the sentiment, it feels almost sparse. “Weak Man’s World” comes off as a call to arms for all the disgruntled engineers of the Boland. The kind of song aKing does best. Sparse verse filled with multi-interpretable lyrics building to an attacking, rocking sing-along chorus. A song both propelled and restrained by Snake and Hennie Van Halen.
“Any Other Way” is entirely disposable; murky and relentless. Both the backing vocals and Laudo seem lost in the swirl of guitar. You can feel there might be a good song under the murk and Snake is on fire, but unfortunately you can’t hear him because someone put a fire blanket over him. Alas the album’s namesake, The Red Blooded Years is another unnecessary track; a repeat of earlier ideas. The way Laudo annunciates “Shaaa Dooooooooooowwww,” and “So terribly beautiiiiii fuuuuuuuuullllll” in an attempt to inject meaning leaves me cold. The album ends with the instrumental track “The Sleeping Sound”, it’s short but nuanced and interesting; it stands out because it’s without the Toto style production of the rest of the album.
As an album The Red Blooded Years suffers mostly because the song writing is not as consistently strong throughout. If anything it sounds more like a new band trying to find it’s feet rather than a third album from one of South Africa’s biggest acts. Obviously Davenport coming in to replace Hunter Kennedy has had some influence toward changing their sound and direction, but the result at this point is that the album feels unfinished, as if they just stopped at some point and said this is good enough. They’re grappling with maturer and heavier sounds but they haven’t quite wrestled them to the ground yet.