Most times when at artist returns to their roots in order to find inspiration, it is a lion in winter, a veteran act with much more road in the rearview than the windshield, trying to peel back the veil of years and discover a musical fountain of youth. By contrast, the Texas Hippie Coalition, still a young band by band standards, have circled the wagons on both their sound and their production, a conscious effort to inject some new but familiar dark blood into the band’s life. The resulting product is “The Dark Side of Black,” a raw and brutally efficient ten-cut record that promises a heaping helping of dry-rubbed, red (black?) dirt mayhem, that sounds more like a companion to the debut album “Pride of Texas” than it does any of their work in the last five years.
Now metal fans, I know what you’re thinking. Whenever any band, new or old, starts talking about being ‘heavier’ or ‘darker’ you have to suppress an involuntary shudder. Those are the predominately meaningless buzzwords that have become ubiquitous in the very heart of our chosen genre – it is the music equivalent of a TV show being ‘edgy.’
But wait a minute! Skip by album opener “Come Get It” for a second and fixate your attention on the album’s single “Angel Fall.” You ever see the old movie “Sneakers?” There’s that scene where Whistler suddenly and accidentally discovers what Janek’s little black box can actually be used for, and he looks up and just says ‘holy…cow.’ That’s sort of the feeling of “Angel Fall.” This is new. This is a marriage of southern metal swagger and chorus paired with double-timed thrash beat-downs. THC hasn’t ever written a song like this, a powerhouse of machine-gunned rage coupled with the band’s penchant for deliberately paced sing-along choruses. Now we’re getting somewhere.
(Sidebar apropos of nothing – the first pass through, I heard the lyric “dead, red rose” as “Derrick Rose” which I thought was funny because I could only picture Derrick Rose looking up suspiciously from eating a sandwich somewhere, sure he just heard his name on the wind.)
“Dark Side of Black,” as we discussed briefly at the top, starts to synergize with “Pride of Texas” at multiple points, beginning with “Knee Deep,” which sounds nearly like a redux of the earlier album’s “Leavin’” both in tone and pacing. It’s another reminder that that THC has hit upon a fairly workable formula for slower (dare I suggest ‘romantic’) songs that still have some teeth and a sinister sneer.
And then we’re back on pace, continuing with the new look Texas Hippie Coalition as guitarist Cord Pool and bassist John Exall thunder through “Villain,” setting a deeply rhythmic stage for vocalist Big Dad Ritch to lay down his idiomatic, bravado-laden vitriol, all creating a new version of the same THC bombast that we’ve come to expect over the last decade.
Speaking of Cord Pool, the man is just barely that, easily the youngest member of THC and yet his playing on this album, through some combination of his own maturity and the producing of Pantera veteran Sterling Winfield, belies just how young he really is. Pool’s winding, artful lead for “Dark Side” is a sort of coming-of-age for him as a guitar player, demonstrating his ability to not just slam out infectious rhythms, but actually compose a multi-faceted aural visage that could play in both high and low metal circles. This is juxtaposed against his shred for “Rise” (because doesn’t every metal band write a song called “Rise?”) which in combination gives listeners a look of a guitar player who is coming into his own as a shining talent.
And we don’t even have time to talk about “Into the Wall,” which bears a lot of fun, romping punk hallmarks and might be the most fun song on the record.
Now listen, Big Dad Ritch said that he wanted the seams of this album to show, that the production should be raw and fast and borderline crude, to match the band’s fastest writing period for an album ever. Well, that was achieved, as the grit on this album again takes us back to “Pride of Texas,” Winfield leaving a lot of production magic safely untouched in his closet. Which is fine for the album as a complete, authentic experience, but does mean that there are some parts which don’t work, as the puzzle pieces don’t always fit cleanly. In particular, “Hit it Again” didn’t really need to be seven and a half minutes long, as THC is not the band who’s going to use that time to explore different directions. Accordantly, Ritch’s lyrics are passable but not especially novel or different from what we’ve come to know as THC, bearing the telltale signs of a flurry of inspiration that had to be gotten down before the ideas escaped into the ether. Of course, the attraction to Big Dad’s bellow has always been the swagger and bravado above all else, which remains perfectly and enjoyably intact for this record.
In the end, “Dark Side of Black” is easily the band’s best record since “Rollin’” and is in contention to be their best album to date, sure to move bodies and develop a sentimental connection with fans. Big Dad Ritch and John Exall, the originals, have put a lineup around them they can have faith in, as this foursome has found a way to reinvent the band’s sound while not forsaking the hallmarks that got them here. At the top we talked about rarities in music, and this last is perhaps the rarest and most laudable of all. “Dark Side of Black” is excellent by any standard.