James is joined by Robin Batchelor on lead guitar and Daniel Ghio on bass, with drumming duties split between recent addition, Nicholas Anson (who recorded “Fire” and “Up in Lights”), and previous member, Michael Gomez, who recorded the remaining tracks; Richard Camilleri features on bass in “Smoke and Mirrors”.
Some familiar names to anyone who’s been to a live show on the rock over the past 15 years or so, and familiar sounds to fans – six of the album’s eight tracks are a combination of existing singles and live favourites – with two brand new songs rounding off the tracklist.
It’s with one of these new additions to the catalogue that Album of the Year shifts into gear. Daniel’s immediately memorable bassline on “Fire” leads the way on a track written shortly before Gibraltar’s initial lockdown last year. The worst of 2020 was not yet upon us, but the writing was already on the wall. Hearing the lyrics, “Abuse of hope, it’s all too late, let’s sh*t on their parade … This is the hour, the moment of truth, get them all to follow you”, certainly raises an eyebrow in the aftermath of Trump’s Capitol Hill riots; they have proven regrettably prescient. Predictions of social disharmony aside, “Fire” tells us a lot about where the band are creatively. Robin puts his stamp on the opener with some easy riffing while James seems to warm up his vocal cords ahead of what’s to come.
This personal touch adds a layer of depth which is not easy to come by.
“Valkyrie” is next along, serving up a little essence de Zeppelin in style and lyrical content, but it avoids being derivative and this is key to the Dead City Radio experience. There are elements of various, genre-defining bands to their music, but they aren’t trying to be anybody else. There’s a nod to Black Sabbath here, a wink at Alter Bridge there, but the band takes these influences and works them into something that feels fresh. The lyrics for “Valkyrie” have a touch of Robert Plant’s penchant for mythology, but they’re also deeply intimate – written as James urged his brother, Rory, to continue battling the cancer which would sadly take him. There’s no more fitting tribute to Rory’s enduring memory, and this personal touch adds a layer of depth and sincerity to the album which is not easy to come by.
This authenticity is again showcased in the album’s other new track, “Up in Lights”. In it, James bellows defiance at unfulfilled dreams of grandeur. There’s real bite in the verses, and while “these dreams have faded and (he) dreams no more”, this comes from a peaceful place: that of a family man and father with different dreams to those born of his youth. Far away from hanging up his pen and his pad, the closing line reminds us that he still wants some fun. It shows. “Up in Lights” is defined by a more guttural tone than we’re used to hearing from James, and speaks to the band’s continuing evolution.
The band’s three core members are stalwarts of Gibraltar’s live music scene and can guarantee the sort of technical excellence that audiences on the Rock have come to expect, but these days, that’s the minimum requirement. Fans want more, and on Album of the Year, they get it. Real care and craftmanship have gone into developing a characteristic sound; songs written across a seven-year span still feel like one, cohesive package. This is also, in no small part, due to the seasoned touch of Dani Fa (Melon Diesel and Taxi) behind the scenes. It may take a more cultured ear than my own to fully appreciate Dani’s contribution, but his production clearly strikes a fine balance; apparent while never intrusive. The addition of the Hammond organ throughout stirs up a small thrill – a cool polish on the entire affair that also serves to unite the tracks in feel and tone.
Yet there is still variety to be had. Political musings, existential crisis and self-doubt comprise some of the lyrics in the remaining tracks, while guitar and bass feed off each other to great effect – I was a big fan of the exchanges in “You Want It” – with Robin also scattering a few virtuoso moments around for good measure; enjoyable if brief. He and Daniel are consistent in what they do: at their core, it’s straightforward rock with big riffs, broken up by the more complex passages that punctuate most tracks. While not often at the fore, the drumming is reliable accompaniment, with the occasional roll and splash adding touches of flair. James comfortably occupies that upper register in a manner he has made his own, while throwing in some vocal curveballs that keep your interest up.
If there is one song that departs somewhat from the formula, it’s side two’s “Adrenaline”. A joyful, fist-pumping interlude to the thematic depth of “Goddess” and “Smoke and Mirrors”, which sit either side of the this anthemic track. It could feature on a Tony Hawk soundtrack – anyone who grew up with the games will know exactly what I mean – and brims with raw energy. The chantable chorus, the machine gun drum beat, the interplay between lead and bass; pure excitement in a can. But while it’s more pop-punk than the rest of the album, it still achieves the band’s express aim of being catchy, yet enduring, and is written with a crowd in mind.
Because these songs will, of course, be best experienced live. They’re written for an audience, with the energy and emotion of a stage elevating the performance, with every member of the band able to feed off the electricity and atmosphere. We aren’t there yet. These are strange times. But Album of the Year reminds us of what we have to look forward to when normality returns.
In the meantime, I can only reiterate a message that we are hearing on the regular: buy local. It’s a no-brainer when locals are serving up content of this quality. As I write this, “Smoke and Mirrors” is once again drawing the album to a close with the sort of refined poignance that keeps me coming back. The tracks continue to grow on me upon each playthrough and there’s some real sophistication beneath the surface.
Those of you lucky enough to get your hands on one of the few remaining vinyls will also get a hard copy of Kane Matto’s cover art – all demons and teeth, lightning and skulls; one would expect no less of the rock album of the year.
Keep up with the band on Facebook @DeadCityRadioOfficial. Album of the Year is available to stream or buy on all digital platforms.
You can contact Dead City Radio on Facebook for enquiries on picking up a vinyl. For the rest of us, the album is available on Spotify and iTunes.