Poland’s Black River are a bunch of dudes playing dudely dude rock for an audience of dudes. And just because I don’t feel that last sentence had enough “dudes” in it to properly convey the ultimate dudeliness of Black River: Dude.
Seriously, the Warsaw double-guitar five-piece’s second album, Black ‘n’ Roll (out in Europe last year on Mystic Productions, now seeing US release through Armoury Records), is rife with beer-raising über-rock that’s unrepentantly pop-oriented, but not in the American commercial sense. You’re not going to see Black River doing Burger King ads anytime soon, but it’s the kind of heavy rock that’s viable in Europe, and with a lineup featuring members of Behemoth and Dimmu Borgir, it comes with a built-in interest factor for fans of either band and an automatic leg-up as far as getting the name out is concerned.
While it’s easy to see a crowd of burly Eurodudes in leather jackets rocking out to songs like “Isabel” and the punkier “Black ‘n’ Roll,” equal parts Misfits and Bad Religion, I have a hard time imagining an American audience for Black River. In many ways, the songs are too commercial to really be underground, and too underground (and frankly, too hard rocking) to be commercial, straddling a line that’s been the undoing of many quality acts through the years. Still, the songwriting is solid, the music is unpretentious — the central riff of “Breaking the Wall” is enough to justify the rest of the record on its own – and just because a band doesn’t meet this or that role is no reason to count them out. Black ‘n’ Roll has a couple highlight moments that more than make up for any culture clash.
Vocalist Maciek Taff reminds at times of an accented Jay Berndt from Kilgore Smudge or any number of other ‘90s melodic vocalists. The band behind him, sterilized somewhat by a thoroughly modern production, is led largely by the guitars of Art and Piotr “Kay” Wtulich, who eschew stoner fuzz for more metallic tones, not really crushing, but heavier than your average riff rock band. Bassist Tomasz “Orion” Wroblewski (Behemoth) and drummer Darek “Daray” Brzozowski (Dimmu Borgir) provide much of the straightforward drive of songs like opener “Barf Bag” and “Too Far Away,” and such relatively uncomplicated rock grooves must seem like a break for players so used to playing as fast and as heavy as possible. They do a decent job of it, but the material isn’t really the kind to throw in too many abrupt changes in tempo or direction. The flow on Black ‘n’ Roll is less complex than that. You know all those killer metal festivals that happen in Europe every summer? Black River is a band tailor-made for any number of those stages.
“Morphine” changes up the Black River approach somewhat with some vocal harmonies and subdued moments, but with “Like a Bitch” is back to the testosterone-fueled rocking Black ‘n’ Roll is built upon. Closer “Young ‘n’ Drunk” is slower, and I’d put it more in the category of “Breaking the Wall” among the high points of the album, and the breakdown-infused US bonus track “Free Man” (taken from the band’s 2008 self-titled debut) shows some of the growth the band has undergone in such a short time – the vocals are a little less throaty, the music behind a little lighter, etc. – and though Black ‘n’ Roll has by then shown itself to be a little samey-feeling in terms of the depth of the production (even with the changes in sound, the sound is still the same), it’s not an unsatisfying conclusion at all.
You know those old strength-test machines where you’d have to grip the handle as hard as you could and the little lights would tell you how much of a man you are, from something like Pipsqueak to Hercules? Well, that’s kind of what Black ‘n’ Roll is doing. Black River play the kind of balls-heavy rock that tests the limits of even the most indulgent girlfriends, and though they have plenty of melody in their approach, you should know that what you’re getting is going to require all the manliness your ears can muster. In fact, you might want to take a lap or do some push-ups before you press play, just to make sure you’ve got the blood flowing. I’m out of breath just hearing it.
Tags: Armoury, Black River, Poland, Warsaw