Personnel: Ben Wells, Chris Robertson (vocals, guitar); John Fred Young (vocals, drums); Jon Lawhon (vocals); Chris Carmichael (strings); Ryan Stiles, Jonas Butler (horns); Sandra Dye, Andrea Tanaro, Toynnia Dye, Boone Frogget, Chad Lockhart (background vocals).
Audio Mixer: Keith Armstrong .
Recording information: Barrick Recording, Glasgow, KY.
Photographers: Jon Lawhon; Rob Fenn; Joshua Landreth.
Sometimes you need to look back in order to move forward. While Black Stone Cherry have had increasing chart success -- 2014's Magic Mountain hit number five on the U.K. charts and number 22 in the U.S. -- the band felt a lack of creative control over their recordings. To that end, they left Roadrunner Records and signed to Mascot, run by Ron Burman (the man who signed them to Roadrunner in the first place). Earlier Black Stone Cherry albums were always imbalanced: songwriting was sometimes sacrificed in an attempt to replicate the band's live sound; at other times, it was the reverse. Kentucky is a self-produced, back-to-the-roots affair (with participation from a host of local players and singers). Opener "The Way of the Future" walks the line between gnarly, riff-tastic hard rock and heavy metal. Frontman/guitarist Chris Robertson's rant against greedy politicians is fueled by his and Ben Wells' twin-guitar attack, grooving tom-tom, kickdrum fills from John Fred Young, and a fuzzed-out, Geezer Butler-esque bassline from Jon Lawhon. The two proceeding tracks, "In Our Dreams" and "Shakin' My Cage," are equally bone-crunching. The gears shift on "Soul Machine." It blends greasy Southern-fried funk and adrenalin-fueled blues-rock, with Robertson backed by Stax-style vocalists Sandra and Tonya Dye. Black Stone Cherry can still write killer hooks, too: "Long Ride" is a power ballad in classic '70s rock fashion, complete with a rousing anthemic chorus and melodic guitar fills by Wells. The band updates Edwin Starr's psychedelic soul classic "War" with fat baritone saxophone, brass, dirty, in-the-red distorted guitars, and a large backing chorus. Robertson's vocal is filled with righteous indignation as the band swells toward volcanic eruption. The vintage Southern rock vibe on "Cheaper to Drink Alone" is classic BSC, but it's steeped in such a catchy melody, it will likely be covered by harder, edgier contemporary country acts. Wells' guitar break is one of his meatiest on record. "Hangman" is steeped in squalling, hard-riffing blues with a hooky chorus, while "Rescue Me," despite its brief gospelized intro, is the meanest, leanest thing on the set. The groove-centric intro of "Feelin' Fuzzy" gives way to a funky backbeat with guitars on stun. The latter album track "Darkest Secret" helps close the album circle with off-the-rails metallic hard rock (complete with a Black Sabbath-style breakdown), though the chorus is drenched in Southern groove. Kentucky marks the first time BSC have balanced all of their writing strengths with their concert presence. The album is a grower. After a listen or two, Black Stone Cherry's back-to-the-cradle approach proves that track for track, Kentucky is not only more consistent, but more satisfying than previous albums. ~ Thom Jurek