Wednesday, February 7, 2018

album review: 'johnny nocash & the celtic outlaws' by johnny nocash & the celtic outlaws

I don't normally do full reviews for EPs... but I'm making an exception for this one. 

And yes, in this case I'm very much going to be talking about a relatively unknown band that I'm most familiar with from my local scene just like I did with Sex Master about a month ago, but this group actually falls in line with territory that deserves some scrutiny: the cross-section between country and metal. Now there's been southern rock on the heavy side for years, but fusing outright metal elements like growled or screamed vocals or much more distorted tunings... it's not exactly common. That's not saying it doesn't exist - I've reviewed Panopticon's introduction of bluegrass, folk, and country elements on their black metal records, and of course you get the groove metal bands that interject rockabilly elements like Hellyeah or Volbeat, and towering over most of the conversation you have the punk and metal elements embraced by Hank Williams III... but let's be honest, most of these are outliers.

...except not as much anymore. More often than not you're seeing metal artists taking a renewed interest in country and they tend to treat the genre's legacy with more respect than huge chunks of Nashville - which makes a lot of sense, given that metal is also obsessed with its own historical legacy. And thus you get acts like Devin Townsend making Casualties of Cool, or Cody Jinks coming from thrash, or the deep outlaw country appreciation you hear from a lot of metalheads... which takes us to Johnny Nocash. He's been around for a while - go to his YouTube channel and you'll find songs recorded going back over a decade ago - but in recent years his material has taken more shape, infusing elements of folk and metal to refine and expand his country sound, which leads to his backing band the Celtic Outlaws and this EP. Five songs, probably a quick enough listen, how did it turn out?

Well... it's not bad, by any stretch - I can comfortably see Johnny Nocash and the Celtic Outlaws finding their niche, they certainly show off a fair amount of diversity and edge on a project like this... but at the same time, for as professional and clean as the recording of this EP feels, it highlights some issues I think they could refine - solid enough core, but there are spots that need development.

So let's start with that core, because if you're going to this band you're going for a few reasons: some pretty damn excellent guitar work, both in the acoustic grooves and the electric solos, and Johnny Nocash himself - there's a raw, guttural intensity to his howling delivery that certainly gives him some gravitas, and he's also capable of easing back and modulating. And given that the mix can have some pretty effective dynamics on tunes like 'The Deep-Rest' and 'Dagger Road' with the reverb-touched guitars and the ability to go heavier without losing the thicker acoustic grooves and grind of the bass. And when you factor in the prominent celtic folk melodic progressions on 'Pagan Dance' or the bass-driven outlaw country groove of 'Love Song', you hear a band with a ton of potential to write really striking tunes. And I'll give Johnny this, for the sort of detail-saturated, outright nihilistic in its substance abuse lyrics, he can certainly sell different dimensions of his downward spiral, from depressive melancholy to sheer, churning rage, to a more sardonic side on 'Love Song' that ends this EP on a surprisingly upbeat note.

But around this core there's definitely spots that require refinement, and let's start with the production. 'Dying Day' brings a more prominent bass to match the acoustic grooves, but I found myself wishing the electric guitars picked up the sizzle and intensity to match it, and a big part of that is mix placement. All throughout the track and especially at the solo they feel a shade too quiet to match the groove, and thus the song doesn't quite pick up the firepower it could. In fact, that's generally my biggest issue with the mix overall: for as hardbitten and swaggering as much of these compositions are, I kept finding myself looking for the ragged edge to come through more in the guitar work or percussion or bass and it felt oddly polished away, which doesn't remotely match Johnny's vocals. But on the flip side, for as gravelly as his delivery is, when he's trying to claw for some of the high notes on 'Pagan Dance' you can tell he's straining, and not in a good way - I get that he's trying to bring a certain heaviness, but when your guitars don't have the same meat to match your delivery, some of these songs can sound a bit oversold. And finally, the lyrics, and I'll give Johnny some credit for the detail and character of his writing - I'm not normally a fan of sheer, self-destructive nihilism but between the profanity, hard drugs, alcohol, and explicit detail, he takes a very Hank Williams III approach and it works for him. Unfortunately, on a technical level the poetry itself could use some polish - lines often feel like they have a word or two crammed in and it doesn't really fit the meter, rhymes can feel dropped, and while the hooks often come together, the writing can feel more slapdash than it should - probably a product of some of these songs being rerecorded from previous projects and not as refined... and yet when you have a five song EP, that becomes harder to excuse.

Look, as a whole, of course I want to support this: the delivery has a ton of intensity, the guitarwork is great, and the melodic core behind these tracks are good - and when you consider how many styles they're crossing and pulling off, I have to respect that - I wouldn't call any of these tracks outright bad, just never quite great. And I'll admit I'm being hard on this, mostly because I see real potential here that a little more refinement and polish can elevate - I like this sonic combination, I want to see where Johnny Nocash can push this. As it is, considering this is only five songs and generally goes down pretty well melodically, I'm giving this an extremely light 7/10 - recommended for those who are curious, but right now for as much as Johnny Nocash has good instincts as a songwriter, I want to hear them bear real fruit.

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