Ten years ago, The Answer released their fuzzified, blues-rock debut Rise. This Northern Irish four-piece rocked. The classic-rock influence was clear for all to hear yet there was enough raw energy for them to stand out; their sound having a vibrant vigor that did not seem forced. Vocalist Cormac Neeson applied Robert Plant’s raspy power to heavier blues grooves and hard-rock forthrightness. The leads, in particular, were sharp and sleek; licks stung and shreds lashed through the warm soundscape with panache. Rise had a great mix of dirty blues playfulness, rock-balladry, and hard-rock groove. Fast forward ten years and five albums and The Answer have released their seventh full-length, Solas. This time the band have honed in on their Gaelic heritage, expressing a more subtle, more folk-inspired side to their sound. So, is Solas something you’d play loud to piss off the neighbors or is it something you’d give to your mother as a Mother’s Day gift?
Certainly the latter. Solas is a far cry from the robust energy of The Answer of old. Any and all buzz, fuzz, crank, and groove have made way for sterility and soullessness. This is the sound of record label interference. It’s a real shame too because the album begins strongly. “Solas” opens moodily with downcast melodies moving through atmospheric southern-rock territories. The subtle yet textured guitar work, metallic snare reverberation, and thick bass twang works wonders beneath Neeson’s gruff yet soulful voice. “Solas” builds to a dramatic conclusion as tasteful interweaving guitar leads, rich vocal harmonies and synth undertones merge. Similarly dark and measured is the opening to second track “Beautiful World” as somber orchestral sounds and vocals weave with theatrical grace; the opening of “Beautiful World” is the final credible moment in an album that rapidly capsizes.
The remaining nine songs on Solas are a mix of inoffensive and soulless folk-rock ballads, self-indulgent Bon Jovi-esque soft-rock numbers, and sterile country-rock pieces written for radio. It’s all very pristine and heart-warming stuff here. “Untrue Colour” is very U2 in its vocal delivery and plodding, directionless sound. Neeson’s vocals are decent, but the rest of the music is as drab and uninspiring as a wet afternoon in Belfast. The energetic fuzz of previous records has been usurped by robotic, sparse guitar riffs and twinkly keyboard sounds; it’s so inoffensive it’s offensive.
The songs are stagnant too. There’s no progression or big set-piece; each song slides drably by. “Battle Cry,” for example, is a barren sounding, vaguely Irish (some lyrics are in Gaelic) folk-ballad about love, storms, and battle cries. The song plods along mechanically and predictably as steady acoustic melodies, tin-can drumming, and banjos attempt, but fail, to incite excitement. Similarly, “In This Land,” a diluted Irish folk-rock ballad, consists of more bland acoustic progressions, laborious mellow bass lines, and sappy vocals. It’s all meant to be soul-rousing and tear-wrenching, a proud yet bittersweet homage to home and all that’s close to the heart (“In this land we’re heroes, criminals, and stars / In this land we know that we belong.”) but it doesn’t feel genuine or honest. It feels like a cash grab and it’s probably going to be a successful one at that: it’s the sort of song that’ll sell millions as it brings suburban mothers and radio hosts to tears.
“Freedom is Coming” carries a trace of that bluesy footprint that pushed The Answer into the limelight many years ago, but it’s soon washed away into an ocean of uninspired flatness. “Being Begotten,” however, has a bit more substance; while still rather downbeat it retains a bit of fizz and vibrancy as smooth bluesy licks smoke through dirty vocal backwaters, similar in style to Seasick Steve. However, these faint glimmers are the traces of dead stars that can never be rekindled
Solas is the sound of muzak. It’s albums like this, heralded by major music publications and record labels as a masterpiece, the next step in a band’s masterful development, that makes even the crappiest of metal releases shine. The songs here are awkward and directionless and it’s all off-puttingly restrained and cautious, especially for a band who built their reputation upon energetic live performances and heavy blues thunder. Is this an album you’d play loud to piss off the neighbors? The Answer is no. Is this an album you’d give your mother for Mother’s Day? The Answer is yes.