Virginian four-piece Freedom Hawk began to carve their name on the American riffy consciousness with 2009’s self-titled full-length, released by MeteorCity. That album earned generally favorable comparisons to Fu Manchu (from me as well), and on the follow-up, Holding On, the double-guitar unit maintain that smoothly-grooved sensibility, adding to it more memorable songwriting and a vocal approach from guitarist T.R. Morton that inherently reminds of Ozzy Osbourne’s early solo work in both cadence and tone. On first listen, that’s going to be what most stands out about Holding On. The production of Vince Burke (Beaten Back to Pure), who also helmed the self-titled, and the mix of Small Stone’s house engineer Benny Grotto of Mad Oak Studios push Morton’s vocals to the fore, and whether it’s “Faded” bringing to mind “Diary of a Madman” with its backing track later on the album or the earlier “Living for Days” copping a feel off “Bark at the Moon,” Freedom Hawk have a clarity of purpose in their use of the Ozzy influence that’s hard to ignore. It’s a twist on, “Well, if it was good enough for Sabbath,” and to Morton’s credit, he’s able to pull off the style better than anyone I’ve heard in the genre since Sheavy’s Steve Hennessey, and able to do it while also busting out a slew of quality riffs on which Holding On’s 13 tracks are based.
It’s a rock album in the tradition of rock albums. Nine of the 13 cuts are between four and five minutes long, and all of them – the exception being the 1:50 interlude “Zelda” – have a classic rock accessibility that will no doubt set many to bemoaning the state of rock radio. Morton and fellow guitarist Matt Cave work well off each other in terms of riffs and solos, and lead the way through straightforward heavy rock the diversity of which isn’t immediate, but which works nonetheless in a variety of moods, from the mid-paced stomp of opener “Thunder Foot” to the barn-burning “Living for Days” (the shortest non-interlude at 2:50), which follows immediately. The rhythm section of bassist Mark Cave (brother to Matt) and drummer Lenny Hines provides stability beneath the riffs, but the songs have an innate sense of structure as well, so it’s not like they’d fall off the rails otherwise. Not to say Hines and Mark don’t contribute – the tonal thickness of the latter is essential and Hines’ pulsating kick is like the floor on which the wah-infused boogie of “Bandito” plays out – just that the material on Holding On is built around solid verses and choruses, not meandering jams that require the bass and drums to ground them in order to establish some rapport with the listener.
With “Edge of Destiny,” the pace cuts somewhat from “Living for Days,” but Freedom Hawk’s ability to write the noted solid choruses comes to the fore. I’ve found in sitting with Holding On that the songs are not so much breaking new stylistic ground as they are digging into what’s already been done in order to create something memorable and distinct from it. The album is a grower in the sense that the more you listen to its tracks – and like a lot of Small Stone’s output over the last few years, it is very much a collection of tracks despite an accomplished flow between them – the more they leave an imprint on you, so that the grown-up punk of “Her Addiction” (a highlight for Hines in showing off his endurance) doesn’t stand itself out from the rest of Holding On until you’ve been through the album a few times, but ultimately proves worth the several listens it takes to get to that point. Morton, the Cave brothers and Hines have a lack of pretense that’s pervasive, and as “Zelda” – which is probably their most Sabbathian moment, with piano and guitar interplay that could’ve set up any number of Master of Reality’s heavy groovers – gives way to the album’s strongest movement in its midsection, Freedom Hawk have only just begun to show off what they can do within the parameters of their genre.
As unhip as it is to say in this day and age, a vinyl release of Holding On is bound to lose something of the listening experience in that the divide between sides of the album will (presumably) break up the flow between “Nomad,” “Magic Lady,” “Bandito” and “Flat Tire” – essentially the meat of the album. Each song has something about it that it does best of all the tracks, whether it’s the bluesy lead flourishes and Cave’s bass work on “Nomad,” the chorus of “Magic Lady,” the divergence from Morton’s Ozzy vocal into almost-cartoonishly deep spoken word for the verses of the pun-titled “Bandito” – a song that later features the line “god damn smoking ban,” as if just to remind that Freedom Hawk aren’t taking themselves too seriously – or the chugging shuffle into the guitar flange chorus of “Flat Tire.” As the centerpiece of Holding On, “Magic Lady” earns its position and might be the band’s strongest inclusion overall, blending many of the elements that make the other songs stand out into a potent brew that’s unabashedly treading stoner rock ground without also being overly derivative, and the subtle shift in sound of “Bandito” comes on precisely as needed – something notable on CD or digital sequencing that’s lost with the Side A/B split LPs require.
I wasn’t convinced initially that every track on the album served its purpose, but “North Swell,” which begins Holding On’s closing third (if we count “Zelda” in with the first four), eventually won me over with its classic ‘80s metal riffing and solo interplay between Morton and Cave. That said, the song does seem to end at 3:15 before reviving the chorus for another go that could be read as superfluous but is ultimately harmless nonetheless. If the tradeoff is ending with the title line and giving the audience some sense of Freedom Hawk’s Tidewater, Virginia, home, it’s worth it. The case is harder to make for “Standing in Line,” but though the riffing feels generic, it nonetheless shows the band as willing to play In Search Of-style stoner rock the way few American bands will dare in 2011 – and doing it well. Holding On’s momentum picks up again with “Faded,” which adds the flourish of echoing acoustic guitars to its intro and shifts into the already-noted “Diary of a Madman” vibe; considerably darker than the rest of the album. “Faded” is primed for singing along, with its memorable repetition of the title (offset with “Jaded!” and another rhyme) and Viking-style backing chants and rhythm. This kind of divergence from Freedom Hawk’s methodology is welcome, as are the shredding solos, and again, it shows the band’s penchant for structure that they included one of the record’s most interesting songs so close to the finale.
The stage thusly set for grandeur, all that remains is for closer “Indian Summer” to round out Holding On in style, and not to spoil the surprise, but it does. Like “Faded,” “Indian Summer” makes the most of its title, Morton repeating it over a solo in the final section as if Freedom Hawk were trying to cram every bit of song they could into the album before it’s finished. Another strong hook makes it a suitable end for the band’s third album, and as much as Freedom Hawk signaled their arrival (the preceding self-release, Sunlight, helped generate the buzz to get them to that point), Holding On shows them as more than ready to build within a niche. Being a fan of songcraft and tight performances, there are several exceptional examples to choose from here, be it “Magic Lady” or “Living for Days” or “Bandito,” and however they manage to grow from this point, they’re already well on their way to a reputation as contenders in American heavy rock. Recommended.Freedom Hawk, Small Stone, Tidewater, Virginia