When I reviewed the self-titled demo from South Jersey non-retro heavy rock classicists Infernal Overdrive last year, the first thing that came to my mind about the songs was that they sounded tailor made for Small Stone Records. The four cuts included on Infernal Overdrive were riffy but not definitively stoner, Southern but not just Southern, and always with an eye toward ‘70s rock landmarks like Cactus, Free and Grand Funk Railroad. Maybe more than one eye, in fact. Either way, it worked out. Small Stone picked up the band for the Feb. 28, 2012, release of their first full-length, Last Rays of the Dying Sun, and as the title might suggest, classic rock references abound. Jimi Hendrix, whose posthumous First Rays of the New Rising Sun came out in 1997, is among them, obviously, but there are depths of style to which Infernal Overdrive dig that result in a mix more directly their own. In addition, guitarist/vocalist Marc Schleicher draws on his experience in Boston Southern rock acts Quintaine Americana and Antler (the latter also Small Stone alumnae) to add a modern feel to the classic ethic, and coupled with the dual-guitar antics of Schleicher and lead axe-handler Rich Miele and a well-utilized knack for injecting memorable choruses with distinct personality, the result is a blend across these eight tracks (even the fact that there are eight tracks on the album feels like a reference to the ‘70s) that’s familiar within the scope of American heavy rock, but not as easily pinned down beyond that to any single band. Nonetheless, much like the demo, Last Rays of the Dying Sun is right at home within Small Stone’s milieu, other Northeastern acts like The Brought Low and Roadsaw making fine enough comparison points to establish some idea of what Infernal Overdrive are working with stylistically.
The band returned to Andrew Schneider (Throttlerod, The Brought Low, partner in Coextinction Recordings) to record the full-length, and with what he was able to bring out of them on the demo, it’s no surprise. It’s easy to view Last Rays of the Dying Sun as an extension of their previous outing, both sonically and in terms of content. All four songs from Infernal Overdrive show up on side A of Last Rays of the Dying Sun, and in three-fourths the same order as they appeared before, opening with “I-95” and moving into “The Edge” and “Duel.” The longer “Motor,” which was 12 minutes on the demo and approaching 14 here, keeps its position as the closer, so in a way, that’s the same as well, but there are four other tracks between “Duel” and it that comprise the previously-unheard portion of the record. Both the newer and older material though sound crisp and fluid (Chris Goosman mastered), the shorter “I-95” and “The Edge” setting the tone quickly with unpretentious shuffle and Miele’s smooth leads, and stating in certain terms the rock ethic to be expanded on as the album progresses with songs like “Cage” and “Electric Street Cred.” “I-95” is no less engaging as an opener than it was on the demo, and Mike Bennett’s drumming (probably the most direct beneficiary of Schneider’s production; the guy just knows how to mic drums) and Keith Schleicher’s bass allow the guitars a solid foundation on which to speed up the motoring riff of “The Edge,” setting up the hooky chorus with a well-honed casual air, like it’s just the way it goes, man.
That sense of casualness – it’s not exactly laid back, but has a pack of cigarettes rolled up its sleeve and at least one hole in its jeans – adds a lot of the charm to what Infernal Overdrive are doing musically, which is neither lazy nor unstudied. Wails and one of Last Rays of the Dying Sun’s several big rock finishes cap “The Edge,” as if to highlight the idea that no one is taking themselves to seriously, and “Duel” commences with what can only be the basis for the song’s title in the interplay between Schleicher and Miele’s guitars. Bennett’s drums stomp and the bass walks in lock step with the guitar for the verses, but ultimately steps back to give the soloing room to breathe, and handclaps, tambourine and some guest vocals from Schneider in the final chorus give a party atmosphere to the ensuing and somewhat predictable conclusion, and following a quiet intro, “Cage” keeps the momentum going with thicker-sounding guitar, more claps and plenty of “mm-hmm” and “alright” peppering from Schleicher. The vibe of “Cage” is more modern, but the chorus asking the question “Can I be your little animal?” is all classic rock and a pretty good example on the grander scale of the way Infernal Overdrive mix the modern with the big-engine ‘70s. It’s something of a comedown after “Duel,” but “Cage” picks up at the end with some righteous solo work and Keith’s most impressive bassline underneath. Three big rock finishes in a row might seem ballsy, but it’s nothing in comparison to the fade-out/fade-back of highlight cut “Deported to Jersey,” which ends side A with a preview of what “Motor” will later do for the album as a whole, working deft riffing, skillfully arranged vocals and unashamed catchiness into the first four minutes before the fadeout starts. They go all the way to silence and rest there for a couple seconds before coming back to wrap in what can increasingly be thought of as the standard fashion for Last Rays of the Dying Sun.
“Deported to Jersey” takes a step back from the complex vocal arrangements and finds Marc layering a chorus on his own (there are some well-placed backwards loops in there too). They probably could just as easily had Keith or Miele offer support in backing vocals, but the change does well to shift the expectation for Infernal Overdrive, and anyway, with the intricate riffing and precision placement of the notes, both guitars and the bass should be plenty busy. Ditto that for Bennett, who takes a drum solo at 3:14 that and works quickly to impress with it, maintaining the beat and groove of the song while also embarking on a tom and cymbal freakout worthy of the space compression it gets. A seamless transition beings the verse and chorus back to close out and Infernal Overdrive revert back to a shorter-song approach with the Ace Frehley cover “Rip it Out,” which appeared as the opener of the Kiss guitarist’s 1978 solo album. It’s a good fit for Last Rays of the Dying Sun, with its “woman done wrong” lyrical sensibility and pop appeal, and Marc roughs up his vocals a bit during the verse to match Frehley’s approach without sounding like he’s trying to do an impression, setting up “Motor” to finish the record with its more expansive (musically and temporally) feel. There are some psychedelic elements in the guitar in the beginning, but Infernal Overdrive keep their straightforward methods in line, however much echo might be added to the lead guitar, and when Marc and Rich meet up for some NWOBHM-style runs, it’s not so much a surprise as a rush of energy.
That stretch of harmonic chicanery paves the way for the verse to return and unfold into an extended jam that accounts for most of “Motor”’s extra runtime as compares to the other songs on Last Rays of the Dying Sun. Solos are taken as the rhythm is maintained, and gradually, extra percussion is brought in to add to the suddenly subdued feel of the song. It’s not an easy task for Infernal Overdrive to cut the energy level with about five of the record’s total 46 minutes left – one almost can’t let go of the momentum brought on by the material preceding – but the jam brings the album down patiently, sleepily, before building it up again. It’s a wonder Bennett’s cymbals lived to tell the tale, and as they fade to windy noise after 11 minutes, they do so perhaps having cut the payoff a little short, leaving room for the sampled speech a minute and a half later to lead the way for (what else?) a big rock ending. Not as big as they do it live, but grand nonetheless. And when they’re done this time, they’re really done. Perhaps the relative lack of ceremony – thinking of the end of “Duel” or “The Edge” – is meant to suggest that the party’s over, that the ceremony has already happened and that there’s nothing more to do but pack up and go home. Fair enough if that’s the case; Infernal Overdrive have already wrought enough raucous rock destruction to account for a two-day hangover, but sue me for wanting more anyway. If nothing else, that should probably speak to the level of asskickery Last Rays of the Dying Sun attains. As a debut, it will no doubt impress among the converted, and as Small Stone’s first release of 2012, it shows the label continuing its leadership role among American heavy rock imprints. Now if only we can get another Halfway to Gone record, I’ll stop bitching about there being no rock in New Jersey.Infernal Overdrive, Infernal Overdrive Last Rays of the Dying Sun, Last Rays of the Dying Sun, New Jersey, Small Stone