Thursday 16 May 2019

Whitesnake - Flesh & Blood (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 10 May 2019
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I've learned a lot of lessons over my years as a critic but I learned some before I ever took up a virtual pen. Back in 1987, I read Kerrang! magazine from cover to cover and I still remember being shocked at the review of the then new Whitesnake album. It had nothing positive to say at all, giving it the minimum 1K out of 5 and bemoaning that it couldn't go lower. I learned there and then that critics should never make their reviews personal. I had no trust for that reviewer ever again.

That album, of course, was their self titled release, also known as 1987, a huge hit which is still easily the most successful Whitesnake album ever, a platinum seller in the UK and eight times that in the US. It reached #2 on the Billboard chart and became a mainstay on MTV. Sure, it was a commercial release in approach compared to the earlier bluesy albums but it was still an excellent album. The critic's job is not to argue with the direction of the band but to highlight what's objectively good or bad and provide a guide to readers as to whether they're likely to want to seek it out or not.

With that in mind, Flesh & Blood, only the fourth studio album since main man David Coverdale put his band back together again in 2002, is a strong release that fans will definitely want to pick up. On the slim possibility that you've never heard Whitesnake before, this is surprisingly as good a place as any to start. It's exactly what the rest of us would expect from them, a combination of hard rockers and emotional ballads, performed with a glam metal edge over a bluesy base, with Coverdale's ever-suggestive voice at the fore singing lyrics that are clearly about women, sex or both. It's good stuff but it's not surprising stuff.

I haven't heard those last few albums, not having checked in since Restless Heart, the sole product of the previous reformation in 1997, but it looks like they've been received pretty well. Good to Be Bad was the Album of the Year at the Classic Rock Awards; Forevermore seems like a celebration with former guitarists Adrian Vandenberg and Bernie Marsden both guesting on the subsequent tour; The Purple Album, as its title suggests, was reworkings of songs Coverdale co-wrote during his time in Deep Purple.

This, I believe, is all original material and, while the album does feel a little long at just shy of an hour (even without the bonus tracks), there's not a bad track to be found. Good to See You Again is a storming opener and Gonna Be Alright slows down, adds a layer of keyboards and lands a sultry and exotic vibe. Shut Up & Kiss Me, the opening single, is Whitesnake in a very traditional mode but with enough grounding to avoid comparisons to the now unfashionable glam metal era. That comes later with Well I Never, which is the least successful track at keeping the hairspray in the past.

The best track here is probably the one buried exactly at the heart of the album. It's called Trouble is Your Middle Name and it's the second single. The guitars are so playful that we wonder why they weren't this playful all along. It's followed by the title track, which is only the first of many of the second half songs to reach back to the blues. It kicks off with a neat riff and, while we know that Coverdale likes nothing better than some sexual innuendo (c'mon, what do you think Whitesnake means?), the way the guitars drive this song feel like sexual innuendo on their own. No words required.

While the most immediate songs probably all come in the first half, the most interesting ones wait for the second. Get Up features the most bluesy intro but really ramps up the speed to turn it into a fast-paced rocker. After All is the most overt ballad with a guitar approach reminiscent of someone like Jorma Kaukonen, who would feel natural covering this as an acoustic blues. And, after that change of pace, there's even an odd attempt at a Whitesnake Kashmir to wrap things up! Sands of Time is all middle eastern and epic and ambitious. No, it isn't Kashmir. Yes, it's interesting anyway.

This isn't the greatest Whitesnake album ever made, but it's a good one and an interesting one. It couldn't be mistaken for anyone else, but it's deep enough and modern enough in sound to avoid sounding like clichéd hair metal. Coverdale is 67 years old but he sounds as confident and capable as ever, so I can see the Snake writhing on forward for some years to come.

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