So, shall we admit it? Damon Johnson leaving Black Star Riders so he can focus on a solo career is a massive loss. Then opening track, “Shivering Shivering” kicks into life at the one minute (ish) mark and you realise their loss is your gain. Because he leaves behind a great body of work which is likely to maintain its quality and now Johnson’s Memoirs of An Uprising shows his move to strike out on his own is a canny one.
Frankly, this is a good album. But with every listen, it becomes better. For a start, Johnson has surrounded himself with a technically skilled band and you can feel the chemistry between the four of them, even if this is Johnson’s moment in the spotlight. But the best part is the restraint he’s shown. In theory, this could have been a mess of an album. Johnson could have assembled a collection of songs which all sound very different as he tinkers and experiments with a number of different styles. Instead, he’s played it safe to give ten tracks of simple hard rock and kept it all tight within that region.
Sure, there’s slight deviations within that core sound such as “Down On Me” which sounds like it could have come from Appetite for Destruction yet somehow, Johnson and his band have made it sound even rawer. Meanwhile, there’s a punk edge to “Rage With Me” and it’s revisited with closing track “Glorious”, sprinkling in power pop and hints of The Eagles. Elsewhere, “We Got a System” and “Call it a Trade” have elements of early 70s classic rock, bolstered by Johnson’s rasping vocals and the former even sounds eerily similar to Black Star Riders.
There’s tracks laden with grooves and stomps such as “Dallas Coulda Been a Beatdown” and “So Brutal” before the latter leads into the blues-driven “The World Keeps Spinning Round”. It’s the album’s “big ballad” moment and slows everything down to an amble with its dirtier, grungy tone but it’s well-suited. It’s also features the best guitar solo of the album, emotion baked into the playing.
With it being Johnson’s album, naturally, the attention is focused on him and it gives his guitar work some breathing space, showing how accomplished he is as a player. Vocally, it’s very raspy and snarling, his music acting as the perfect backdrop for it – again, showing how he’s played to his strengths. It’s not the strongest set of vocals in the world but he makes the best use of his vocal chords, not stretching them past their limits to add variation or as an exercise to show he can manage it.
Memoirs of An Uprising reminds me of this year’s Dizzy Reed album. There’s a similar atmosphere bubbling throughout the records, almost as if both of them are trying to spread their wings and whilst stylistically, they’re poles apart, they set out and achieved the exact same thing. Indeed, if there was acrimony to Johnson’s departure of Black Star Riders, right now, he’d be having the last laugh with such a quality album. However, that’s obviously not the case. Instead, he’s just added another gem to what has been a stellar year for rock albums.
Memoirs of An Uprising is out now
Header image by Stephen Jensen