I love the retro metal/hard rock movement. Call it retro, call it dad metal, call it what you want. When it’s done well it can be as much fun as it was back when I was listening to the real thing in the ’70s and ’80s. Do it badly, though, and it’s just sad. We’ve seen both ends of the spectrum here, and Granite City, Illinois’ The Judge aim to claim their spot in the movement. But where will they fit? I’ll be the judge of that (you knew that was coming).
First of all, these young fellas (I don’t have their ages, but they don’t look like they could have been born before 1990) list a narrow variety of influences. First, there is the obligatory homage to the early 70s in Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. But countering these early British uprisings are newer influences such as Graveyard and Kadavar. Newer, but not really that different — in fact, Kadavar cites the exact same influences. What it means is The Judge aim to bring a certain level of stoner/psychedelia to their ’70s-laden jam sessions. To my ears, though, I hear a lot of early ZZ Top in here, at least as much as the stoner aspect of things, so let’s also say there’s some Texas-style blues boogie.
Case in point: the swaggering cut “From the Mountain,” which features an intricate riff and a ton of the aforementioned boogie. “Changing World” sounds even more like ZZ Top, primarily due to the guitar tone. The Judge’s cited influences are definitely present, though. Album closer “Parade of Sin” comes off just like a mash-up of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, awkward but enjoyable, while “Go on Home” and “Darkest Daze” are a more pure homage to the former, minus the eerie occult lyrics. And while anyone can play ’70s-inspired music, you need a decent singer to pull it off. Tyler Swope has a classic sounding voice that works perfectly with the music — a bit too laid back at times, more Billy Gibbons than Robert Plant, but still effective.
If it sounds like I’m gushing over Tell It to the Judge, hold your horses. The style and at times the performances work for me, but there are some key issues here that are most likely due to The Judge still being early in their careers. First, while I’m pretty sure the band was aiming for a very live, off-the-floor feel to the recording, they went a bit too far. This album is the definition of “non-produced.” It sounds as if the group got together and banged out each song in one take, in one day, and with just two mics in the room. Some time spent sharpening this up would have done wonders. As well, many of the songs come off as jams rather than songs — more like you’d hear a band that messes with their songs live to change them up. There are good ideas, hooks, and riffs on this album, but too often the songs meander ineffectively and are too loose for their own good. The performances show promise but are much too loose. Opener “Empty Halls” is the best example of this, as the band comes off as if they’re stumbling over themselves throughout.
So what this all boils down to is a really solid effort by some youngsters clearly in love with the 70s vibe. The Judge have some positive attributes — the band plays a nice, loose (maybe too loose) style, and Swope has a voice well suited to it — but they need to keep on writing and writing and writing to hone in on the sound they’re going for. Tell It to the Judge comes off too often as a sloppy jam session (again, partly because of the production choice) and less as a veteran act worthy of label attention. I’m rooting for these guys, but in the crowded world of retro metal/hard rock, Tell It to the Judge is destined to be a fleeting fancy.