The origins of hard rock and heavy metal lay in the blues (Black Sabbath started out as a blues band, after all), yet I have never found much appeal in that particular form of music. Whether talking about the original wave of blues artists, or the later blues revivalists, or the blues-rockers who use it as a way to sell lousy rock records, none of it has ever made an impact with me. I find that funny, since I tend to specialize in all manner of downbeat and depressing art. For whatever reason, the blues has eluded me.
With the growing wave of retro bands stripping away the years of progress, and moving us back towards a more blues-focused sound, it was only a matter of time until we reached an existential moment for me; is it possible for me to ever like the blues?
Blues Pills, as the name suggests, is the test through which I will attempt to answer that question. Their debut EP, “Devil Man”, is the tipping point of retro rock records. While I have liked many of them, and have come to consider Graveyard the best, and most important new band of the last decade, we can only venture back so far in time before the sound changes too much to be recognizable by today's standards.
Opening with Elin Larsson's unaccompanied vocals, two things are clear within the first few seconds; 1) This is not going to be your typical rock, or even blues-rock record, and 2) Holy hell, she can flat out sing. In fact, listening to the title track, she is everything that's wrong with it. While the band tries to conjure up a sound to fit behind her, they can't come close to matching the intensity of her voice. She's simply too good for what the rest of the song is, no matter how hard they try to rock.
“The River” similarly opens with a bluesy guitar line and Larsson's vocal, which again is stunning in it's power. This time, the band doesn't try to compete, they stay in the background and flesh out the sound. In this role, everything comes together beautifully, and the song is a perfect little gem that most listeners wouldn't have trouble accepting if the vocally similar Adele covered it.
The following two tracks take the same road, with the band falling into a groove behind Larsson's plaintive vocals, a role that lets both sides do what they do best. These bluesy numbers are beautiful in their simplicity, and when delivered by a singer like Larsson, can be utterly magical. If only they had replaced the title track with something similar, we'd be looking at a document of what could be impending greatness.
“Devil Man” is the bluesiest of all the retro records I've been hearing lately, and it answered a very important question for me. Yes, I can like the blues, at least the way Blues Pills are able to deliver it. All I can hope is they realize their strengths and don't feel the need to force being a rock band upon themselves. This EP proves it's the last thing they need to do.