1. Old Blood 04:49
2. Acid Overlord 04:52
3. Graveyard Blues 07:18
4. Hellfire Rodeo 02:32
5. Ruralizer 05:14
6. Bite the Dust (and Bleed) 05:08
7. At the Bitter End 09:03
8. Mississippi Queen (Mountain cover) 02:28
9. Hangman’s Friend 05:25
Review in Haiku – ‘The sonic equivalent of a Spaghetti Western’
This is the sonic equivalent of a Spaghetti Western – a production that is steeped in American idioms, but actually emerges from Italy. The old Italian cowboy movies usually drafted an American star to helm the cast, but Tombstone Highway rely entirely on their own homegrown skills, and those of a few special guests from the Italian scene.
This doesn’t mean that their hard-rocking mix of bluesy hard rock, stoner metal and shades of Americana is in any way inauthentic or sub-par. The songs here are tight, furious and delivered with conviction. The banjo obligato on the opening track, ‘Old Blood’ is a nice touch, although it doesn’t really go anywhere – I would have loved to hear an electric guitar/banjo duel. Such deliverance not being on the cards, the next track, ‘Acid Overlord’ kicks in with familiar stoner grooves, laced with pinch harmonics that remind me of Black Label Society. ‘Graveyard Blues’ hits the ground with a riff that is pretty reminiscent of ‘War Machine’ by KISS and it strikes me that this is the problem with a lot of bands that try to occupy this hard rocking, stoner-friendly, groovy/heavy space: the sheer number of entrants in the subgenre mean that it takes a lot to forge a unique style out of these widespread influences. Tombstone Highway doesn’t try to establish a unique identity – instead they are happy to churn out songs that sound like any number of other bands.
The good news is that these songs are well written and well played. The album may have been recorded by a duo, but it sounds and feels like the product of a well-oiled machine firing on all cylinders. Stomping riffs and catchy hooks erupt from every seam and some well-placed guitar breaks help. What I question is the ‘doom’ tag the label gives this band, in addition to the completely understandable ‘hard rock’ bit. A song like ‘Hellfire Rodeo’ certainly rocks hard, but is it, or any of the material here really doom? I think not. Rather, the band’s musical vocabulary is not unlike that of an 80s hard rock band, driven by the same root influences – some southern rock, some Blue Cheer, some blues – only filtered though a post-Corrosion of Conformity/Orange Goblin/Spiritual Beggars sensibility rather than the glam and pop aspirations of a lot of those 80s bands.
The title track is as strong as a title track should be and brings back the banjo layering. ‘Bite the Dust (and bleed)’ mixes heavy power chords with slide melodies in a manner that reminds me of Physical Graffitti – era Led Zeppelin. At around 9 minutes in length, you’d assume that ‘At The Bitter End’ might be the song that justifies Tombstone Highway’s doom aspirations, but as far as I am concerned it’s bluesy hard rock. There’s a scorching guitar solo and even some tasty Hammond organ work to add to the fun. It’s the Mountain cover, ‘Mississippi Queen’ that makes me see why I’ve mainly been damning this album with faint praise. It’s a good cover, but it doesn’t have the sense of space and groove the original has. The sound on this album is thick, the guitar tone is great, but it is overwhelming, filling every available space in the music until it feels like there simply isn’t enough space for the rhythms or the melodies to breathe. It’s very slick, very professional production, but a little lacking in character and nuance.
This is a good album, but it’s generic. Your appreciation of its merits will depend on how committed you are to that genre and how willing you are to listen to a band that brings nothing new to the table, but knows its craft. Perhaps with time, Tombstone Highway will move towards a more expansive, unique sound – they certainly have the talent for it. In the meantime, I think I’ll settle for a bit of mountain climbing – the sort that’s propelled by Leslie West’s endless soloing.
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