Ever since Phil Lewis and Tracii Guns resolved their differences in 2016 and merged their versions of L.A. Guns back into one band, they've been reasonably prolific, knocking out an album every two years: The Missing Peace, The Devil You Know and Checkered Past. That schedule means that they are due for another one and here it is, another gritty hard rock album that owes as much to bands who influenced what would become hair metal as to those hair metal bands themselves.
Mostly that means American punk because there's plenty of the New York Dolls and the Stooges in this sound, stripped of all the later excess of the eighties down to its sleazy core with a deceptively set of simple riffs and hooks, all delivered with a near garage-band level of production. Babylon is the most overt glam punk song here, right up there with anything Hanoi Rocks ever released, but Lewis snarls his way through songs like Got It Wrong just like a Dolls devotee who's just found the validation he needed after hearing Too Fast for Love on release day back in 1981 and aches to tell everyone on Sunset Strip about it from a variety of stages.
However, there's also a more traditional rock and pop sound here too. You Betray kicks everything into motion with a very Jimmy Page guitar from Guns and Lewis follows suit with a grungy Robert Plant style vocal. It all feels so down and dirty, I wanted to wipe the grime off it. There's more Zep at points throughout the album, especially on Gonna Lose, but it's shifted into an almost southern rock framework there with unusual rhythms. In a different direction, Crying sometimes sounds as if it used to be a bubblegum single from the sixties before the Guns sleazed it up.
I liked Checkered Past, but much of it didn't truly engage me. This one does much better, because many of these songs get under the skin. You Betray is engaging from moment one, as is Diamonds, which starts out like a ballad but gets tougher and more memorable as it builds. These songs have simple but highly effective grooves, whether they slide into them immediately, like You Betray, or take their time for effect, like Diamonds. With repeat listens, other songs demonstrate their own grooves and more and more of them engage each time through. I didn't find that on the previous album. I found it here and it makes it tough to move on, rather than listen through one more time to see what pops next.
While this sounds like a step up from its predecessor on a first time through, it continues to grow with repeats to the point that I started to wonder if it really counted as two steps up. I wonder how much Lewis meant a repeated line in Diamonds: "I know we're broken but we shine like a diamond now." It certainly sounds like a good way to describe the L.A. Guns of 2023. The riffs on Babylon and Wrong About You may be acutely simple but they're as effective as riffs get. The riff that rumbles under Shame fits that too; it's just more hidden under Lewis's more outrageous delivery, just as a teasing harmonica is hidden under the guitar.
But that's five winners out of five and they're followed by Shattered Glass, with an almost AC/DC riff to kick it off. I'd call the first half stronger than the second, especially with Gonna Lose turning down the emphasis, but nothing lets the album down on this one. Got It Wrong picks up the baton again, but then Crying softens things back up afresh. Lowlife and Like a Drug sit somewhere in between them with regards to intensity. I should emphasise that these are still good songs. I'd call Gonna Lose a clear highlight and Like a Drug isn't a bad closer at all, but lowering the energy level changes the impact of the second half.
And so this is easily a 7/10 but it deserves more than that. I'm not sure it does enough to warrant a highly recommended 8/10, but it's pretty damn close. Suddenly I wonder why I don't use half point ratings again. This is the epitome of a 7.5/10 album and it bodes very well for the Guns' next album, presumably due in 2025. At least I hope so. Their website seems to have mysteriously vanished.