Monday 2 March 2020

Wishbone Ash - Coat of Arms (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 Feb 2020
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It's pretty fair to call Black Sabbath the godfathers of heavy metal because the genre simply wouldn't exist without them, but they didn't create it all on their own and the twin guitar harmonies of Wishbone Ash's Andy Powell and Ted Turner are a factor whose importance can't be understated. Without them, and especially the epitome of their art on their genius 1972 album Argus, it would be a notably different genre. It's been less than a week since I heard Biff Byford cover Throw Down the Sword on his new album.

Nowadays, there are two bands carrying the name. The primary Wishbone Ash is led by Powell, who's been leading the band for more than half a century now, because they've never gone away, however long it might be between albums. In 2004, original bassist Martin Turner formed a fresh version of the band, but had to rename it from Martin Turner's Wishbone Ash after legal action. Their last album in 2015 was credited to "Martin Turner, founding original member of Wishbone Ash".

This album is from the core Andy Powell version of the band and it's a real gem. I liked it on a first listen, though a lot more for the numerous guitar parts than the vocals. I liked it even more on a second when I realised how distinctive everything was and how much the vocals contributed to that. The album achieves that ever-elusive goal of sounding consistent throughout but allowing each and every track to find its own identity.

I did have to get used to the vocals, which are split between Powell and Bob Skeat, bassist since 1997. They're down to earth with obvious accents and I would be lying if I didn't say that on occasion they distract from the long instrumental sections, but there's a powerful confidence in them that allows them to take ownership of songs at the right moments to keep this album from turning into an hour long guitar workout.

Not that an hour long guitar workout between Powell and Mark Abrahams would be a bad thing. The latter only joined the band in 2017 but he's been a fan of it since he was nine years old, teaching himself how to play along to the band's songs. He fits in very nicely indeed. Even if this isn't Argus (and what since then has been?), it's a delightful back and forth that only ever pauses during vocal sections (and not always then). The two guitarists trade licks and then combine forces to create music that's instantly recognisable as Wishbone Ash.

This album couldn't be mistaken for anyone else, the only time we even think about comparisons being when vocals find a groove we know from someone else, like moments of David Byrne on Too Cool for AC. Having such a recognisable sound is a good thing because it forges identity but it can be a drawback. I remember finding early albums like Pilgrimage, Argus and Live Dates back in the mid eighties and falling utterly in love with them, but newer material had a tendency to fade into the shadow of those timeless older releases. I'm long overdue revisiting the band's back catalogue. This may prompt me to do just that.

Most of the songs don't offer much in the way of surprises, as delightful as they are. The album opens with three absolute peaches: We Stand as One, Coat of Arms and Empty Man. Each finds a particular groove with its vocals before moving into instrumental joy. We Stand as One also distinguishes itself with a guitar tone in the opening riff that's instantly memorable. That approach continues throughout the album, only the individual grooves and song lengths changing.

As expected for Wishbone Ash, there's some folk in the rock here and there sometimes just hints but sometimes much more overt. Déjà-Vu may be the most obvious example of a folk rock song but it isn't the only one. It comes late in the album, at the point when the band start to explore other territory, at least a little. Whether it's folk or southern rock or blues, it's tinges only until Personal Halloween, the final track, when things get interesting.

This one opens with a southern rock riff too but it gradually gets funky to a major degree, stalking like a Dr. John song. The horn section is easily at its most obvious here and the saxophone escapes that to dominate sections of the song. It's done well, but I'm happy that we only take on the New Orleans sound at the end, because it's the more traditional material that hits best here, especially the title track and It's Only You I See, which both stretch past the seven minute mark. While some songs are better than others, there isn't a single one I've even thought about skipping, even after four or five times through.

Welcome back, Wishbone Ash, after six years away from the studio! This is as strong an album I've heard from a band celebrating a half century of studio recording.

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