My first contact with The Answer, Northern Ireland’s entry in to the classic rock revival sweepstakes, was when I saw them open for AC/DC in Toronto, 2009. At the time I threw them in with Wolfmother as pure copyists of Led Zeppelin: entertaining enough, but not worthy of the time and energy required to absorb their material. Later, however, I was pleasantly surprised when I found, upon digging into their latest studio effort, Raise a Little Hell, that now there seems to be more going on than simple Zep worship.
The first thing that grabbed me was just how bright and shiny the album seemed. This is a record made for car stereos and summer afternoons: Riffs that are bright,shiny and hopeful, and vocals that are crisp and clear, but free from the confines of technique. Vocalist Cormac Neeson is the undisputed star of this record, his voice drawing obvious similarities to a young Robert Plant, but not plagiarizing, working a crispness that doesn’t strip away any of the man’s soul. This is most evident in places like the chorus of “Cigarettes and Regret”, where the band lays back and grooves, allowing him to open up the throttle on his vocals and belt it out. Instead of trying to wow the listener by nailing each note perfectly, he uses his chest and control of his vibrato to create a rich, full, soulful texture.
Speaking of grooves, the rhythm section of bass guitarist Micky Waters and drummer James Heatley are absolute monsters, shaking the ground with powerful, fuzzy tones and a percussive might that could only recall the great duos of yore: Jones and Bonham, Butler and Ward, Glover and Paice. Just stunning work that equals that of their vocalist, providing a marvelous canvas for that bright and shiny guitar work.
Of course, much of this greatness comes from their producer, Will Maya. God damn does this man know how to produce rich, thick, full-bodied hard rock records for the 21st century. Nowhere does the album feel sonically weak, even in the most mellow moments. Walking into a room with this album playing is like walking out into a warm summer day: it awakens your senses and excites your mind. Everything pulses and sways and breathes like something organic and alive. It’s truly an incredible sounding document. The only complaint that I can level at the entire record is that it seems just a little bit too long, and so its overall directness and no-bullshit approach is a bit affected by its slightly bloated length. This might seem to be a strange thing to nitpick, but a compact, trimmed down package can sometimes elevate a really good album into a truly great one.
While there are obvious touches of Zeppelin, The Answer are here offering so much more than I originally gave them credit for. Touring with AC/DC has clearly affected their songwriting, giving them a sense of purpose, and a sense of fun that some of their previous material lacked. Raise a Little Hell is another strong entry in what is already shaping up to be a great year for hard rock.