Undeniable fact: the best debut album to ever be released is Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction. Nothing released before or since has come close. However, in 2013, ably assisted by Toby Jepson, The Virginmarys got about as close as any band ever could to topping that. Six years on and nothing has come close to that. Until now. Much like The Virginmarys, Anchor Lane have enlisted the help of Toby Jepson for their long-awaited debut album, Casino. And similarly, it’s the best debut album I’ve heard in years.
If you’re not aware of Anchor Lane at this point (and really, you should be if you’ve even casually looked at our pages), they’re a four-piece modern hard rock band with oodles of talent and skill as individuals and as a unit. Another undeniable fact: they’re the best band to come out of Glasgow in decades. Sure, there’s been a hell of a wait for this album, but they’ve made it worthwhile, honing their chops by constantly gigging around the country and playing with some incredible names like Cheap Trick, Tremonti and RavenEye (twice), playing Download in 2018 alongside some other great festivals and more often than not, upstaging the other bands they’ve shared a bill with. So this is very much a reflection of that constant graft and that constant strive for perfection that very few other bands can match, applying each and every lesson they’ve learned since New Beginning to make a record for the ages.
What is obvious from the outset of Casino is their maturity, as musicians, songwriters and a band – you’d think they’d been doing it for a lot longer than they have and aren’t in their early 20s. But there’s more to the album than just that, there’s a forward-thinking attitude to the music. For the last few years, we’ve seen modern rock in the UK take inspiration from the latest pool of arena-fillers. And it’s worked. There’s been no shortage of great bands and releases because of it. Hell, the aforementioned New Beginning EP was in this camp. Let’s be real, we’re hitting the point of stagnation and the bottom is about to drop from it in the same way NWOBHM rose and fell. Those moments are still here for Anchor Lane but if you were already a fan, there’s going to be songs on here you weren’t expecting from them. Instead, they’ve cannily evolved from there to show their progression but not be pigeon-holed by newcomers as simply another modern hard rock band. They’ve adapted the sound and their own DNA to get ahead of the curve and separate themselves from the pack.
But what of the music, then? It’s a ten track effort and doesn’t even come close to the forty-minute mark. It gets in, does what it has to, and leaves. It does so by leaving a trail of destruction in its wake and rather than tidy it, you just hit “play” again to repeat that feeling of being overwhelmed by its magnificence. Indeed, opener “Blood & Irony” sets out the stall from the beginning, this isn’t Anchor Lane as you’d expect them, taking things in a more alternative slant before it builds to its crescendo. Assisted by Ricky Warwick (yes, that Ricky Warwick) in songwriting duties, they’re pulling no punches from the start and whilst he only contributes on here and a later song, his influence echoes throughout with the quality of writing being nothing short of superb. “Voodoo” continues the idea of challenging what you’d expect from this band. Imagine a Free or early Bad Company number but with more snarl and an eager bite. Full of passionate bluesy, soulful guitar work, it’s so left-field for them but it works so damn well.
However, there are the more traditional rockers you’d expect from them such as the punchy and rambunctious lead single “Fame Shame”, the latest in a long line of songs to tackle our ever-growing reliance on social media, technology and modern day noise. The title track combines the two sides of the preceding songs for a swagger-laden jaunt. There’s the slow-burn of “Stone Cold Hearted”, an immediate earworm, begging for radio airplay and one of those golden songs perfect for clubs and arenas alike. Featuring a massive hook and groove to match it, it revisits themes found on “Blood & Irony”, “Casino” and “Clocks”. Elsewhere, the closest to the ballad of the album is “Shell of Me”. A touching number, it’s deft and moving in equal parts, the acoustic strains bulk it out to match the tender, whispering vocals and the guitar work is loaded with as much emotion as the screams.
Meanwhile, the final three songs of the album are relentless. “Flatline” may have been in the set for a while but I dare you not to sing along with the string of “na na na” moments they’ve built into it. “Dead Run” has Warwick return on songwriting duties but you’ll also hear his golden pipes provide backing vocals. And the finale of the song with its bass and drum runs will have your neck hair at attention, much in the same fashion as a Motörhead song.
As the closing notes of the groove-laden “Honey” bring the album to its end, there’s no other way to describe this album than as something incredibly special. Conor Gaffney’s vocals are incredibly varied, hitting the a number of peaks and valleys and his guitar work bounces effortlessly off Lawrence O’Brien’s to ensure the dual guitar setup is not only justified but essential to create engaging melodies full of pathos, warmth and technicality. Meanwhile, drummer Scott Hanlon and bassist Matthew Quigley work to provide solid rhythms. They’re full of skill and heft, constantly pushing the songs forward, mighty when needed and restrained at other times. A pairing which works seamlessly, feeding off one another to add a layer of robustness which can’t be emulated by other bands.
Even on a production level, this is flawless and shows that Toby Jepson really does have something of a Midas touch when it comes to production. Everything comes together as a complete song, nothing is buried at any point, the melodies sit on an even footing with the rhythms. Indeed, just as he had a hand in making King of Conflict sound great six years ago, he’s repeated the feat to help make the best debut album since then.
Casino is everything you want from a rock album but also what it should be in 2020. There’s a careful balance between variation and cohesion in songs, masterfully produced and brought to you by an incredibly skilled and talented band. Full of passion with something to say, this album is a game-changer and there’s not a fault to be found. But when you take into account it’s Anchor Lane, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Nor should this third undeniable fact: you won’t hear a better album in 2020.
Header image © No Half Measures
Casino is released on 31st January