Sound — 8
Black Stone Cherry's strong ties to classic rock have been evident since their inception. With founding drummer John Fred Young being the son of The Kentucky Headhunters guitarist Richard Young, BSC was just as much the son of TKH, and they even got to use the same family-owned practice space TKH used to begin recording their music. After their 2006 self-titled album, they'd parlay into working at Martina McBride's Black Bird Studios with well-renowned rock producer Bob Marlette for their 2008 follow-up album, "Folklore and Superstition." BSC would traverse further into a post-grunge/country rock sound with their 2011 album, "Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea," working with the prolific contemporary rock producer Howard Benson, Halestorm frontwoman Lzzy Hale, and a handful of other songwriters, but the band would find a desire to step away from the country pop characteristics and tend back to their original southern rock gruffness in their fourth album, 2014's "Magic Mountain."
Now on their fifth album, "Kentucky," BSC move further away from the accessible country rock styling found in their last few albums and further towards a stronger rock/metal sound. There are more appeals to staunch retro rock this time around - heard in the bold fuzz guitar riffs in "Hangman," "Feelin' Fuzzy," and their cover of Edwin Starr's iconic song "War," the southern rock swagger of "Cheaper to Drink Alone," and most especially in the brass-boosted "Soul Machine" - but the most noticeable change BSC bring forth in the album is an initiative to sound heavier. Along with the distortion hitting an overly grainy goodness in "In Our Dreams" and "Darkest Secret" (with the latter even taking a turn into a 3/4 hard rock breakdown), the opening buzz riff in "The Way of the Future" could easily fit on a Deftones album, the harmonized bridge riff in "Born to Die" conjures a Black Sabbath spirit, and as heard in the previous album, the band kindle some more Soundgarden inspired moments in "Shakin' My Cage" and the oddly measured bridge riff in "Hangman."
While that heavier sound is the biggest investment made, BSC do manage to tend to a few other sonic elements in order to balance things out and keep "Kentucky" from being overly aggressive. The most prominent element is a significant increase in their Leslie pedal usage, which, while its watery melodies make a good contrast to the heavy guitar layers up front, and also spruce up the hard rock ballad of "Born to Die," it does end up being overused throughout the album. And while the more standard power ballad of "Long Ride" throws a curveball by wielding some '80s-style guitar sound, it generally feels like the many other power ballads BSC have written before. But contrarily, the ending ballad of "The Rambler" takes a much more organic route, where its humble arrangement of acoustic guitar, fiddle and string sections creates a richer feeling than the more produced ballads heard in BSC's previous albums.
Lyrics — 7
While frontman Chris Robertson's lyrics in BSC's last few albums primarily prioritized weed and booze-fueled debauchery, he slims down on that raunchy subject matter in "Kentucky," only indulging it in the template sex appeal of "Soul Machine," and depicting some fatal attractions in the femme fatale of "Shakin' My Cage" ("Born on the Bayou and raised on the sand / She's my Medusa, I'm stone where I stand") and the Grade A gold-digger in "Cheaper to Drink Alone" ("You loved me and left me in the red / And now I don't feel nothing but broke"). This time around, Robertson's lyrics focus more on heavier themes and thoughts, heard in the personal anguish of "In Our Dreams" ("My mind's running again / And all my hopes are fading / If this is the way, I don't wanna stay"), "Hangman" ("Sometimes I wonder what's it gonna take / To end the suffering, stop all the pain") and "Rescue Me" ("I let this poison take control of me / A walking shell of what I used to be"), as well as a terminal father's final words to his estranged daughter in "The Rambler." But Robertson also tries to extract strength in these dark moments, found in the positive messages of "Darkest Secret" ("Close your eyes and let your spirit smile / Then find the laughter inside disaster") and "Born to Die" ("And even if you lose, you gotta know you tried / Sometimes you gotta fall before you dance") - though they may not be anything uniquely profound, it still provides more substance than the party-hard lyrics of BSC's previous work.
Overall Impression — 7
Normally, southern hard rock bands takes a turn into the more accessible realm of post-grunge/country rock the bigger they grow, and though BSC's instrumental prowess had them stand stronger than other country rock acts, the safe and formulaic genre came at the price of a considerable restraint. But with BSC taking the opposite direction from country pop rock to something meatier, the output of "Kentucky" shows a more unrestrained BSC sound and performance, getting the room to show more capability in a classic hard rock/alt-metal vein. And while the brash increase in power is a fairly elementary way to accomplish that, BSC doesn't just invest it all on earsplitting noise, and along with some bits of lighter sonic elements to contrast, their instrumental skill continues to shine strong.