Genre: Blues Rock, Jam, Psychedelic, Southern Rock
In the UK we have two media outlets which spearhead and oversee and command the “classic rock” fanbase: Classic Rock Magazine and Planet Rock Radio. That is, the music we’d all consider actual primitive rock and not Chris Martin dancing around with a drumstick on the cover of NME. But, the UK rock demographic – and i’m not talking about us, the music obsessives – is nearly completely made up of two types of hardcore rock fans; those who are so closeminded that they can only accept good music existed before 1972 (Woodstock Wankers is my term) and those who can only accept that good music exists if they’re told it sounds like a band they’ve heard before.
General classic rock doesn’t really exist in younger audiences here beyond educational parents teaching their kids (like I was lucky enough to have), or, in a way that only Britain can manage, when a reissue appears and a band are catapulted into the mainstream again for their 2 months of fame (see: Rainbow, Bad Company, Rory Gallagher)
Now, let me just say that both Classic Rock Magazine and Planet Rock Radio are bastards. Loathsome, bandwagon-jumping, playlist-using, playing-to-their-crowd, overhyping, elitist, fantasist bastards. Elitist being the main word here, because they stick to their own and push their new favourite bands like they’ve just released Physical Graffitti Pt2. A new one every month.
So why am I talking about this?
Well, it frustrates me that they do their best to let things like The Chris Robinson Brotherhood slip through the loops. Instead, “revivalists” like Airbourne and Rival Sons, “saviors” like The Answer and Tracer get narrowly pegged into the small gap where good new music should go. AND THESE BANDS DO NOT EVEN SOUND ANYTHING LIKE THE GENRE, LET ALONE THE BANDS THEY’RE COMPARED TO.
The drummers mechanically play like they’ve joined New Order instead of a rock band. The distortion gets cranked up and makes everything sound like Nickelback covering The Cult. If it wasn’t that we know they aren’t, you could swear all these bands are manufactured. Every rock god pose in the book, every picture looking the exact same, the singer throwing Paul Rodgers movements and the bassist, at least 99% of the time, wearing a hat. It’s about as authentic as a book called How To Be Authentic written by the singer of Avenged Sevenfold.
And that’s where the point that “revival” and “retro” and “throwback” really aren’t ever good ideas. If you ever see those words in a magazine, avoid the album like the artist is coming to murder your pet parrot. All they have to do is look at this album, The Magic Door, which we’ll get to in a second, and see that, if they want proper, gritty, vibe-y 70s rock, it’s right fucking here.
I’ve been holding back on writing about this band for so long because they seem to hit a part of my heart that makes the emotions run in circles. For years i’ve picked up those magazines and waited patiently for a band to give us an album in the true 70s way; live, authentic, rusty, and laidback. Especially laidback. I sure never heard ZZ Top playing 10000 mph drop-d grunge riffs and layering their guitars to make it sound “thick” and “heavy.”
Now, I know that’s not for everyone. But to me, a country kid raised in the rustic Scottish nowherelands, if you’re gonna be a straight-up rock band, then you better be rural and real and know all the words to Going To California, Sweet Virginia and Madman Across The Water.
I’m sure you know who Chris Robinson is; the ex-lead singer of The Black Crowes, originally a good, but not immaculate, swaggering reincarnation of Rod Stewart & The Faces. He is someone who understands everything i’ve just said in the last 90 paragraphs. That is why, as time went on and The Black Crowes became less important to the mainstream, they evolved into a real band. Their last album, Before the Frost-Until the Freeze, was, in my absolutely wrong opinion according to their fans, one of the best rock albums produced since the heyday of the 70s. It sounded like a mix of The Band, The Stones and the Allmans.
So what happens when Chris Robinson breaks up with his band? Well, he forms a new one with Neal Casal (of Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, a band whose 3 hours jamband sets were more like the Grateful Dead Version 2). He promises “cosmic sounds”. He promises “vibe”.
And I was nervous. I really was, man. It sounded like everything I ever wanted. To have a modern day Grateful Dead who I could follow on tour, and collect the bootlegs of, and sleep on sofas just to see them play a Gram Parsons cover for the 2nd-ever-time. As a Deadhead (the worst kind of Deadhead, the “give me a song and i’ll name my ten favourite performances of it“ type) it was a fantasy that just seemed too good to be true.
When the Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s first album hit the shelves in July this year, I bought two copies so that I could have one in the car and one in the stereo at ALL TIMES. The only reason there’s not a review is that it would take more than I could write to describe it. Having had months to reflect over it, it’s a 4.5/5 album, but it still didn’t fulfill absolutely everything. Not yet, anyway.
So that’s where The Magic Door comes in.
This review is an edited version; originally, it was a 6500-word essay that seemed to cover everything from modern jam bands to music venues in the UK and even, somehow, an extended rant at Phish. I don’t LIKE jam bands; the widdly widdly, overplaying, boring, confusing Americanism of the music world. Just two of them. Grateful Dead, and now the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
Now, you probably want to know what it sounds like.
It sounds like an album that was released in 1974. Right down to every detail, it sounds like something from that era. Not a “throwback” or a “revival”, it just legitimately could fit right in amongst the company.
You already know this thing is getting 5 stars.
Some of the songs aren’t even THAT good. BUT THE VIBE IS WHAT MAKES IT GOOD.
Oh, the vibe. The vibe. It’s recorded live in the studio, of course, and it’s super-super-ultra laid back. Like, imagine those scenes from That 70s Show where they’re sitting smoking mary jane; this is an album that they would be playing. I fail to see how anyone can dislike it. The first track, appropriately titled Let’s Go Let’s Go Let’s Go, is a Hank Ballard cover. It’s not even good, it’s a standard 8-bar blues affair. It’s throwaway. But it is BRILLIANT because of this vibe that is set. Dude, this is just five guys playing what’s in their souls. There are 7 songs on here, and every one just keeps going and going and going.
Someday Past The Sunset, Little Lizzie May, Sorrows of a Blue Eyed Liar and Appaloosa are a lot like the material on the last Black Crowes record. Infact, Appaloosa, despite starting like Freebird here, appeared on that disk and Little Lizzie May was written in those sessions too. I like them better than the originals. Am I allowed to say that the band Chris Robinson has assembled here are better than The Black Crowes? Probably not, but it’s true. Little Lizzie May kicks on and dances like the Yardbirds covering Exile On Main St’s side 1 (just listen to the Jagger-esque way he sings “honeyyyyyy”!) Sorrows of a Blue Eyed Liar is a mix of Stella Blue and Comfortably Numb.
Anyway, enough about those filler tracks.
The centrepiece of the album is track 4. Centrepiece, masterpiece, call it what you want.
Vibration & Light Suite has to be heard to be believed. It’s an endurance test at 14 minutes. I hated it at first; the opening five minutes are a swirling, jazzy retake of the Dead’s Eyes of The World. But, make it through the first part and you’ll be treated to a trip down psychedelic lane. The first 3 tracks are merely nothing compared to this. You will not expect it. At 5 minutes you’ll be swept into the soothing sounds of prog rock, and Zeppelin, and Syd Barrett and, somehow amazingly because it’s not something you hear often, the most Gong-like thing i’ve heard come from an American band.
Oh that’s right, it turns into Gong.
Chris Robinson, once the husband of Kate Hudson and the singer in one of the 90s mainstream’s favourite rock darlings, is sounding like Steve Hillage.
And then it closes with amazing krautrock ambience that would make Popol Vuh proud. Where did this song come from!? This is not straight-ahead, danceable rock music!
Once you grow to love the opening 5 minutes, it’ll be hard not to call it ones of the songs of the year. I love this thing. I played it 8 times in a row this afternoon. Literally, if you listen to Vibration & Light Suite, you’re gonna come out of it feeling something; it could be anything – disconnected, hate, anger, joy, confused, who knows. But it’ll make you feel something.
And then, just as I was about to bemoan that the only thing missing from The Magic Door was the Little Feat vibe of the first album, here’s Wheel Don’t Roll to close the album. It perfectly captures the mid-period Lowell George from The Last Record Album, but it still sounds like a band doing what they love, it’s not a ripoff (like The Black Crowes were prone to being at times).
Vibration & Light Suite, from 5 minutes onwards, earns The Magic Door every kind of award possible. I don’t care about the rest of the songs right now. Technically, it’s nowhere near as good as the Syd Arthur album I gave 5 stars too, but i’ll be playing this record daily for the mood it brings with it.
The vibe makes this record so incredible that it could’ve been 10 Jonas Brothers covers and it would still be five stars. It could be Chris Robinson telling a joke about the Buddha, but as long as it has this vibe it will always be five stars.
Buy it. Steal it. Download it. Put it on your sister’s iPod and delete the rest of her music so she only has this to listen to. Do whatever you can to hear this, and let your friends hear it too so that they come to Europe.
Hey Classic Rock Magazine, if you want real rock n roll, well you’ve finally got it.
For fans of: Grateful Dead, Little Feat, Black Crowes
Released 11th September