Album Reviews

Spiritual Beggars – Earth Blues Review

Spiritual_Beggars_--_Earth_Blues_cover

Released by: InsideOut Music

Release Date: Out now! (Europe)

Genre: Stoner/blues metal

Links: www.spiritualbeggars.com

 

Line Up:

Apollo Papathanasio – Vocals

Michael Amott – Guitar

Per Wiberg – Keyboard

Sharlee D’Angelo – Bass

Ludwig Witt – Drums

 

Tracklist:

1. Wise as a Serpent

2. Turn the Tide

3. Sweet Magic Pain

4. Hello Sorrow

5. One Man’s Curse

6. Dreamer

7. Too Old to Die Young

8. Kingmaker

9. Road to Madness

10. Dead End Town

11. Freedom Song

12. Legends Collapse

 

Stoner rock is a bit of an oddball genre for me. It’s like some bands are actually catchy enough to hold my interest and just make fun music to listen to (Monster Magnet comes to mind) but some bands are just so weird and noisy that you really need to have a spliff or two before you can start to enjoy their music (SleepElectric Wizard). To me, the Swedes of Spiritual Beggars definitely belong to the former category. Ever since their debut, they’ve been pumping out some fun, psychedelic stoner rock often boasting a healthy haze of blues with catchy hooks. One cannot fail to mention the killer guitar work of Michael Amott who I believe needs no introduction (CarcassArch Enemy… ring a bell?) and the crazy keyboard work of Per Wiberg (Opeth) since the 2000s.

They’re a band which has had a good run so far, with a few not so spectacular albums in the early 90s (their first two are decent but nothing to envy on their later works) but it was really with 1998’s Mantra III and 2000’s Ad Astra that they would make their mark for me. These are some very bluesy stoner rock albums with killer grooves, stellar musicianship and featuring the fantastic voice of Christian “Spice” Sjöstrand (still the best singer they ever had, to my ears) to compliment the music. At the time, many thought it was a shame that they lost Spice but honestly, considering that the replacement was none other than Janne “JB” Christoffersson (Grand Magus), I certainly wasn’t the one that was complaining the most. I thought his voice was a great fit to the Beggars’ sound and 2002’s On Fireas well as 2005’s Demons are both right up there with the best of the band’s material.

From there, with Amott’s commitment to Arch Enemy, the band was in a bit of a hiatus between ’05 and ’10, which marked another vocalist change from JB to Apollo Papathanasio. I must admit, I’ve never been that big a fan of his voice. I like him in Time Requiem but his other power metal work like Majestic, Evil Masquerade and Firewindare really not quite my cup of tea. I just think his vocal tone does not fit with these bands at all. As such, it made 2010’s Return to Zero a bit more difficult to digest for me. It has definite highlights (“Spirit of the Wind”, “Concrete Horizon” and a cover of Uriah Heep’s “Time to Live”) but it’s not quite anywhere as timeless as their late 90s/early 2000s material.

When I saw the cover artwork for Earth Blues, already the 8th studio album of the band, I thought it bode well and I was hoping the music would reflect that and be a nod to their older sound drenched in 70s bluesy rock with cool Hammond and such things. Well, I was about half right, honestly. I still struggle a bit with Apollo’s vocal approach but the riffs and the songwriting is much better this time around and I guess that helps him as well, as he seems a bit more comfortable here and not like “the new guy that just got thrown in front of the train”, if you know what I mean. There’s more passion, more groove and a generally more enjoyable vibe throughout the album, which is really welcome. Let’s break it down a bit.

Right from the get go, “Wise as a Serpent” presents a much different sound. The production is very 70s and reminds of classic rock. It’s a short, punchy and rocking track with Apollo really belting it out on vocals. Nice. “Turn the Tide” is an instant classic, for sure. This is exactly what I want and expect from the band. It’s very bluesy and very Spiritual Beggars. Again, Apollo fits well here. The song also features a great solo courtesy of Amott’s guitar wizardry. “Sweet Magic Pain” slows it down a bit and shows the band’s musical skill. Really nice keyboard work here and great riffing. Apollo pulls a bit of wailing here which I’m not big on but a good song nonetheless. “Hello Sorrow” is a great stoner blues rock song, with a catchy chorus and some great instrumental work. “Old Man’s Curse” is the first dud for me. It just doesn’t really grab me much. It’s well done but unremarkable among other highlight. I will say however that Apollo pulls some nice vocal groove around the last minute. The first half is already over when the final notes of “Dreamer” bursts through the speakers and I gotta say, it’s a really well done re-interpretation of the classic Jerry Zaremba track. Very cool vocal performance by Apollo here as well as some suave guitar playing by Amott. The energetic “Too Old to Die Young” starts the second half with a good thump with its stomping groove and catchy chorus. It’s also the longest song here at just over 6 minutes long. It features a nice atmospheric bridge in the middle (before a final speed burst in the last 2 minutes for a killer finale) which I actually really dig. With Per’s keyboard work, it’s definitely reminiscent of some psychedelic bands of the 60s/70s would do. It’s one of my favorite tracks here. “Kingmaker” surprised me with its heavy stomp. It may be a bit more familiar to those who have heard Return to Zero. It’s not my favorite here but it’s not really a bad track; it has a good chorus but like “Old Man’s Curse”, it doesn’t stand up to the rest of the material on the album. “Road to Madness” is also a bit unremarkable for me. Thankfully “Dead End Town” is a nice, short and punchy rocking song which gets back my attention before the end of the album. At that point I was relieved that the album didn’t run out of steam after “Too Old to Die Young”. Sadly, “Freedom Song” doesn’t do much for me either save for a good guitar solo but thankfully, the album ends up on a really good note with the fantastically bluesy and groovy “Legends Collapse”.

In conclusion, I can’t say this is on par with their best material for me (the second half has a few clunkers and is ultimately what brings down my score a bit) but it certainly does more than live up to Return to Zero and it also makes up for its lack of feeling and emotion. Earth Blues wears its name well; it is a very bluesy, very 70s-rooted album which suits the Spiritual Beggars very well. I don’t know if I can live up to finally fully enjoy Apollo’s vocals but if the music keeps up the quality level, the next one could be their return to greatness. I don’t know if it’s the production onEarth Blues doing it but Apollo seems to sound much more tolerable here than he was on Return to Zero. I still wouldn’t suggest this album to get to know the band (please check out Ad Astra or On Fire instead) but for the fans, it’s certainly not a disappointment, considering the last album brought down expectations (at least, my own) quite a bit. As such, I see Earth Blues in a positive light and as a good omen for the future of the band.

 

Written by Chris Auclair

Ratings    Chris    8/10

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