I have a specific memory of the first time I saw Stone Axe – it was the Saturday before Roadburn 2011, I had done my last shift of drudgery and had decided to welcome in my holidays in a fashion I saw fit to continue: musical and intoxicated. I stumbled up to the Unicorn in Camden and was met by the usual typically rowdy bunch that populate my personal favourite of London’s smaller venues – let’s not let it go the same way as the much lamented Gaff on Holloway Road!
But anyway, I was there to see the blissful Trippy Wicked (easily one of the best new bands the UK has produced in recent years) and related Stubb (who have just released an excellent new album mixed and mastered by Stone Axe’s Tony Reed), so we’d already been treated to a wealth of great music by the time this cheery-looking quartet took to the stage. The first thing that struck me was the stripped down nature of their setup – no pedals to speak of, they just plugged in and cranked up! A basic formula, but one that is actually surprisingly rare in these days of the vintage being fetishised to the point of absurdity. And so, over the next hour, North London was treated to an astonishing set of good old fashioned rock’n’roll; there was dancing, drinking, singalongs and general good times, Stone Axe earned themselves many new fans that night, a pattern that was to repeat itself when I saw them play to a packed Bat Cave in Tilburg (this set is due for release later this year…). No-one that saw them was left in any doubt that this band demanded attention and was about as good as heavy music can get!
And so, in the light of that breakthrough tour, this reissue of their sophomore effort is well-timed and welcome! Oddly enough, you could apply John Peel’s quip about The Fall to Stone Axe for somewhat different reasons: “Always different, always the same”. “II” is the embodiment of this weird contradiction, with a sound that’s quite unmistakably rooted in the Seventies throughout, but encapsulates a wide variety of heavy music that was created in that decade. From the outset, the raw urgency of AC/DC in their prime is clear as day, both in the simple but foot-tappingly brilliant riffs and licks of Reed’s guitars to the hellraising squeal of singer Dru Brinkerhoff’s vocals (Bon Scott would have been proud, rest his soul). Songs like “Old Soul”, “On With The Show” and “Ain’t Gonna Miss It” have the testosterone of “Highway To Hell” era AC/DC, and have the same, suggestively exotic suggestion of open spaces that I remember Young and co’s early records had on me when I was a teenager! Listening to much of this album is liable to make you feel ten years younger, they ought to prescribe it to the infirm!
Brinkerhoff’s vocals are nothing short of outstanding throughout, and he shows real depth and range – the listener is exposed to the pantheon of good old-fashioned rock’n’roll, with vocal patterns and riffs firmly in the Status Quo/Thin Lizzy camp for “Those Were The Golden Years”, before shooting off headfirst into Country/Southern/Biker rock mode for “One More Time before I Die”, in the best tradition of Lynyrd Skynyrd! “Chasing Dragons” is a standout track, the kind of song you want played at 4am in your local bar, as you’re just about ready to pass out – a melancholic start that develops into a singalong anthem, although if it’s a singalong party track you’re after, “We Know It’s Still Rock’N’Roll” fits the bill best, with more than a passing nod to early KISS.
Of Reed’s many skills, his greatest is probably his ability to write a killer tune (isn’t that always the clincher?), but his prowess as a producer/engineer comes pretty close behind. This whole record is a masterclass in restraint, from the energy of the opening track to the epic sweep of closer “Turned To Stone”, the mix is perfectly balanced – there’s a real sense of space to this record, the kind that only comes from a deep-seated understanding of the music and minimal overdubbing. None of the crowded, layered approach found in much heavy music these days, just the perfect balancing of a soulful rock’n’roll voice and killer hooks. The solos are also worth a mention, as they are fantastic in the best tradition of Tony Iommi (an underrated soloist if ever there was one); they are carried out with precision and restraint, and function as part of a song, rather than a needless display of sheer technique. Really a top notch album that will perk up your mood at any time of the day! Times that energy by ten and you’re almost as close as to how good these songs sound live!
The good folks at Ripple Music have included a nifty bonus CD of rare/vinyl only tracks with this edition, which showcases more of the same fun-loving, highly skilled rock’n’roll that these guys do so well! The only material I had already heard on this disc was the track from their first 7”, a cover of Cream’s “SWLABR”, which I honestly think is better than the original (say what you like about Clapton, his singing was never particularly good!), and “Shine On”, which was on the vinyl version of their (equally excellent) first album.
A particularly good track is “Black Widow”, regardless of the fact they’re about the millionth band to use this as a song title! The legacy of Grand Funk is in full swing on this song as it is with much of the album and the tracks present on this bonus disc, soulful vocals and hard-as-nails licks and riffs! There isn’t a really a great deal else to be said about this bonus disc that I haven’t already said in relation to the album, although the cover of “When I Came Down” (apparently Sabbath covered this in their early days!) is interesting in that Reed clearly decided to experiment with Sixties-style hard panning (i.e. vox and bass panned sharply to the right), and it makes for an interesting and nostalgic diversion, typical of Reed’s inventiveness and respect for all things ancient!
The disc treats us to a bunch of storming live tracks, which give live members Mykey Haslip (a joy to watch him pound the skins!) and Mike DuPont a chance to flex their musical muscles on record, although in all fairness they make cameo appearances on the albums too! Perhaps the most striking tracks on this disc are the last three, which comprise Stone Axe’s side of an upcoming split with Wight. Far longer in length, the music is more jam-based, with more of a progressive feel – as such, I must admit to having been somewhat taken aback, but don’t let the sudden change in vibe put you off! After all, these are meant to be part of a separate release, not following on as part of a compilation! As standalone tracks they work very well, plus I’m a sucker for Mellotron, and besides, it’s to be applauded that the band is trying something different. I can’t imagine the next album and upcoming European tour being anything less than stellar!
Scribed by: Saúl Do Caixão