Hailing from the Texas, these hard rockers bring me a style of the genre that reminds me a little of UPO, a band that I haven’t heard in well over fifteen years. I don’t know what really happened to them, but the very beginning vocal lines of opener “Where The Wind Blows” feature a sort of chant-like vocalizing that isn’t very common for this genre, which has always been very “straight to the point.” It also features a little southern twang, so that listeners don’t forget the band’s roots. “End Of Days” carries a little bit of early Creed with it, but punches in a few bluesy grooves as well. I could definitely cite Creed as an influence here, but they more or less laid the groundwork for the modern rock genre, far before the sappy “Higher” came out a little later. This is further referenced on the title track, which continues to pound me in the face with downtuned guitars and an extremely catchy chorus that serves to be a sort of anthem for shows like Vikings or even Game Of Thrones. I’d be surprised if a game developer didn’t ask to use this as an anthem for their product later on down the road. I could almost hear the “You have one choice left… FIGHT OR DIE!” used in a commercial, which shows just how much mainstream potential these guys have.
But Blacktop Mojo aren’t just hard rock riffs and catchy choruses, as more than a few notable guitar theatrics appear here and there to show that the band’s axeman Ryan Kiefer is actually capable of playing his instrument. With several hard rock bands these days, you don’t really get the kind of solo performances that I think we deserve. I know that I was very upset to see much of the solo content removed from the latest Disturbed record. Even on a bit of a sappier number called “Prodigal” that will have modern rock radio stations practically drooling all over the floor, we are greeted by a rather tasteful rock solo bit that shows listeners that they are not dealing with amateurs here. These guys have played with the “You Name It” of hard rock royalty, as familiar acts like Aaron Lewis (Staind), Candlebox, Drowning Pool, Puddle Of Mudd and more as well as having released a debut just a few years prior in 2014. As we get back to the album, we’re presented with another sort of ballad called “Shadows On The Wall” which oddly comes right after the last ballad, a decision I find kind of odd – but whatever. In any case, there’s a unique guitar tone utilized here that differentiates itself a bit from the previous, even though the solo effort utilized in the piece is almost non-existent. After that one though, we’re treated to a real whammy in “Sweat.” They really should have made this one a single, because I can think of about a thousand hard-working southern laborers that would blast this one loudly out of the speakers of their pickup trucks. It’s a sort of red-blooded anthem to the American worker and feels like it could have been a missed opportunity, especially since folks around here love songs that express how hard they work everyday. It’s also not a common topic for hard rock music, but has lyrics that I feel a great deal of workers will relate to, especially if you work manual labor. This is pretty much the “Grade A USA” way of getting things done as far as I’m concerned and it’s going to appeal to a hell of a lot of people. The next cut, “Pyromaniac” actually has a video though (and we have it right here at the bottom of the review) and comes in as a slowburner with an equally nice rock solo, which would undoubtedly work on the radio and probably is already playing on some stations, no doubt. It’s definitely radio rock, but it’ll sell for sure.
Moving on, we have “8000 Lines” which is the longest song on the album, including some unexpected acoustic passages in an attempt to build some texture in a style that doesn’t always include it. I have to commend this extra effort put into instrumentalism, which probably will be one reason that it never sees radio play, but the extra depth is of course appreciated. The next one here is “Make A Difference” which plays between ballad and rocker, making for yet another radio hit. The lyrical theme here seems to revolve around whether or not anyone will remember you or your contributions to this planet in the next couple of thousands of years, and no – probably not. After all, even our most accredited contributions would be ancient history by then. Don’t live for tomorrow, live for today. “Chains” comes off as equally peculiar, because it’s a “stick it to the man” kind of song calling for rebellion. I agree with the lyrics here, but I think that I liked Iced Earth‘s take on it during the past two albums a bit better – not to mention Jon Schaffer’s side-project, Sons Of Liberty. Still, it’s the same concept.
I wouldn’t normally use a paragraph break here, but I feel that the next song calls for exactly that. Interestingly enough, these guys actually attempted something that takes a really large set of cojones and decided to cover the Aerosmith classic, “Dream On.” Now, I’m of the school that believes nothing can actually top the original version of this Rock N’ Roll classic that I literally grew up with and remember loving quite a bit when I was five and exposed quite a bit to rock music – which may have had an effect on my tastes today. In any case, the band does manage to nail it with solos intact for the most part (Joe Perry is a tough man to beat) and frontman/rhythm guitarist Matt James does manage to perform Steven Tyler‘s classic falsetto with a near-perfect pitch. I wasn’t sure if he was going to hit it, so I was practically sitting there just waiting to see if he could do it because he hadn’t offered anything in that style for the whole of the album. But lo and behold, he actually manages it, and in the end I would have to consider it a fair cover that represents both the originating band and this act proficiently.
That leaves us with the final cut, which is not advised to listen to if you’re depressed or suicidal. I mean, this is the kind of song that they would play back in the nineties on a commercial where I’m being shown distended bellies and asked to “feed the children for just a few dollars a month” or I’m being shown abandoned dogs in a kennel. The track is called “Underneath” and though it would sort of work as a “lighter moment” onstage, it kind of feels odd being the closer and ending the record on such a sad note. The “Dream On” cover should have been the cloer to the record, with this one thrown somewhere in the middle. Burn The Ships had a lot of high energy, only to depress the hell out of me right at the end. I feel like I’m being asked to watch a video about suicide victims with something similar to the Goo Goo Dolls‘ “Iris” in the background, which Pepsi actually used in a high school movie years ago to talk about the dangers of drug abuse. I guess they think that if you use really depressing music and show junkies in the background, you won’t use drugs. I mean, you shouldn’t use addictive substances that can ruin your life and those around you period; but I think marijuana was one of the substances they tried to Refer Madness to us back in the late nineties along with heroin and cocaine. “Oh, I shouldn’t’ve done that weed! Now look at me!” Damn you, Pepsi. As if you’re not putting a drug into your soft drinks to begin with. A drug that a hell of a lot of us are addicted to, me included. (To be fair, my drug of choice is the majestic Dr. Pepper, not Pepsi. We’d have them as a sponsor if we could.) Aside from all this, the end result of the piece is very unexpected and I was not looking for a funereal moment at the end of my rock record. But you know, some people are really going to dig it and that’s expectable. Just kind of felt a little like Staind’s later material, where Aaron Lewis sang about how horrible life was for a number of years and became a millionaire for it.
If I’m going to judge Blacktop Mojo properly at this point in their careers, I would say that they are headed for rock stardom. This is the kind of music that literally prints money, and if they can get out there with the right amount of coverage and publicity, they’ll be the next big thing in American rock music. There’s no question about it. I guess seeing an act like 21 Pilots getting the Grammy for best rock performance when they aren’t even a real rock band in my opinion, is kind of a crushing blow to the genre when we’ve got acts like these guys out there still doing it in the underground. About twenty years ago, Blacktop Mojo simply wouldn’t be making this kind of music in the underground and would have been picked up by a major label. Again, no question about it. If this record had been released around the time of the nineties rock boom, these guys would be looking at a Grammy nomination right now. But because the name of the game has changed so much with the advent of the internet, things have also changed quite a bit for them. That can’t be helped, but at least they’ve given it all with a very solid hard rock album and I have to respect that. As to whether or not these gentlemen become famous, that would all depend on how much America still cares about it’s modern rock scene. We definitely need some kind of rock performance in the world that actually deals with hard, pounding guitars and not whatever in the world 21 Pilots were doing. Hopefully, there’s still hope here. Rebellions are built on hope.
(12 Tracks, 51:00)
Full Album Stream (Courtesy Of The Band)