There’s nothing quite like the thrill of good ole dirty rock n’ roll. The ruthless crunch of driving guitars, the thump of the pounding bass, the gutsy howls of an unapologetic singer, and the steady crash of the drums: These are the hallmarks of a timeless genre with boundless energy. While acts like The Black Keys and Foo Fighters have long been a beacon of rock music’s resilience in the twenty-first century, recent up-and-comers like The Struts, Cardboard Kids and now The Blue Stones provide fresh voices and new hope for a blighted genre.
Not that there isn’t enough rock music to go around – in fact, the world is overflowing with overdriven guitars and amps set to eleven – but it takes more than expertise in the pentatonic scale for a band to truly stand out. Rock culture has always valued authenticity, and crafting a fresh and unique (or at least recognizable) brand – from the way you sound, to the way you look – can be key to an artist’s breakthrough.
But above all else, you need to make good ole dirty rock n’ roll.
The Blue Stones make good ole dirty rock n’ roll, and they do it well. Black Holes, independently released today (10/20/2015), is the long-awaited follow-up to The Blue Stones’ highly lauded sophomore effort How’s That Sound?, a 2012 Bandcamp best-seller that featured the infectiously catchy “Rolling with the Punches.” Technically The Blue Stones’ second full-length record, Black Holes is the well-defined, cohesive result of a blues rock band finding its groove and milking it for all it’s worth. Thick tones and fat riffs duke it out in the controlled chaos that makes up Tarek Jafar and Justin Tessier’s most impressive work to-date!
That’s right: Much like another blues rock band with a colorful name, The Blue Stones are a dynamic duo. Windsor, Ontario natives Tarek Jafar (Vocals/Guitar) and Justin Tessier (Percussion/Back-Up Vocals) are the two well-groomed gentlemen men behind Black Holes‘ big sound. As a duo, Jafar and Tessier naturally missed out on certain things – like having a full-time bassist. To this end, Jafar has previously noted how the band “subconsciously compensated for one in the music,” and it most certainly shows in their powerfully booming sound. Perhaps that’s the key to becoming a successful blues rock band; after all, The Black Keys don’t have a bass player either, and they seem to be doing just fine.
Black Holes is shrowded in a Pink Floyd-esque darkness. The minute-long instrumental track “Airlock” ominously fades into “The Drop,” the first full song on the record and an apt introduction to The Blue Stones’ brand of blues rock. Crunchy guitars surround Jafar’s effected vocal as he croons about staying strong and not being hurt by (what we presume is) a former lover.
I’ve been alone a long time…
A beautifully raw and delicate guitar line opens the next track, “Black Holes (Solid Ground),” which soon builds into a roaring blaze. A worthy single with a catchy guitar-driven, whoa-heavy chorus and the line “fighting the fever,” “Black Holes” displays some of the versatility inherent to The Blue Stones’ sound. This display continues into the album’s actual single, the “The Hard Part.” An extra-tight rocker, “The Hard Part” finds The Blue Stones incorporating pop songwriting techniques – cleverly placed repetitions, melody-supporting verses – into a finely-crafted rock tune:
I believe, I believe, I believe in you
I believe, I believe, I believe in you
I took a chance on a dance with a lady so true
‘Cause I believe, I believe in a lady like you
I know you’re not an easy one to conquer
May I remind you, girl, that I’m a monster
And if I may suggest we move in close
Just put your hands in mine, like you’re supposed to
Yes, The Blue Stones do not come without a little boyish pride and cheekiness, but their mix of the intimate and intimidating balance each other out; in the end, the duo comes off as bearing the same contradictory qualities as the rest of us. Of course, the most exciting moment in “The Hard Part” is its infectious chorus – “Da, da, da, da, da-da, da-da-da!” Jafar’s voice follows an enticing upward spiral; it’s as if he, himself, is rejoicing in having crafted such a wonderfully compact hit.
Listen: “The Hard Part” – The Blue Stones
An important quality to any album, be it rock, pop, etc., is that it has a reasonably sinusoidal flow. Music that is all crests all the time will eventually lose its shine, as happens with most things done in repetition. Following another dynamic and expertly-designed number in “Be My Fire” – which finds both Jafar and Tessier making excellent use of musical spaces and pockets – The Blue Stones bring the mood down a bit with “Lay,” a tearjerker ballad if one pays the lyrics any attention. Jafar sings quaintly over a lightly-effected electric guitar:
It’s not over now
Don’t lay your flag and turn away
It’s not over now
Not this way
So blow a kiss and wrap me up in darkness
Make it quick before the feeling sticks and holds
I can’t see no other way to compute
So pick up your bags and we will start something new again
At this point, a beafy overdriven guitar briefly takes the song hostage. The Blue Stones create a brief dynamic interplay between the soft verse and this heavy musical bridge, a move that actually increases the impact of the verse’s restraint. That potential energy builds and releases in wave after wave of melodramatic suffering: It is a rare, raw moment for the Canadian duo.
The remainder of Black Holes feels at times like a rehashing of the first half’s motifs, but it is not without redemption. The riff-driven “Little Brother” pumps some life back into Black Holes on the heels of “Lay,” sporting a Led Zeppelin-esque guitar line and impressive syncopated drumming from Tessier. “Midnight” features some spatial experimentation as The Blue Stones replace the overdrive with a little more reverb and warmth. Impressive left/right panning on the drums allows for an unexpectedly intimate listening experience as percussive hits come interspersed between the left and right ears.
Black Holes ends with “Magic,” which effectively combines the blues rock of the album’s first half with the relaxed, experimental alt-rock leanings of the album’s latter half to create fresh tones and rhythmic drives that are unlike anything The Blue Stones have previously put forth. Albums are always more exciting when they end on something unexpected, and “Magic” is decidedly a step forward for the band in terms of their exploration and understanding of sonic space. Whereas they start Black Holes sounding like The Black Keys, The Blue Stones end the record sounding more like twenty-first century Red Hot Chili Peppers. That they are willing to create such different sounds and track their progress over a full-length record is a testament to The Blue Stones’ growth and musical acumen.
Bottom line: The Blue Stones are a rock n’ roll group that is not to be messed with. Black Holes finds the Canadian duo pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone at a critical moment in their career. Experimentation is a necessity for any band’s growth and sustainability, and the highs and lows, crests and troughs, booms and quivers that comprise Black Holes make for an intentionally well-rounded sonic experience that will electrify and captivate listeners.
Good luck remaining independent after this, boys.