Listening to some of the tracks on The Cold Stares’ latest album, Mountain, it makes sense that you’re listening to a duo. In fact, some of the haunting man-and-a-guitar tracks are so sparse that it might convince you that you’re listening to a solo bluesman. But on most of the songs here, when the band are cranking out material that wouldn’t seem out of place in the early 90s grunge scene, you’ll swear that there must be a least five members. You’d be wrong. The Cold Stares comprise singer/guitarist Chris Tapp and drummer Brian Mullins – and that’s it.
Released last year, this would have been right near the top of my end-of-year list. It runs to fifteen tracks, and although your favourites may change from one play to the next, there is no filler here. The songs alternative between the sparse arrangements of dark blues numbers with meatier fayre. Lyrically, the album is an intoxicating fusion of biblical references and Southern mythology. On “Friend of Mine” Tapp howls “Oh, Lord, bless my soul / been standing on the levee since I was six years old”, which, lyrically at least, is the album in a microcosm. There are references to the “Mississippi at my hips,” preachers, muddy water, and the characters that populate these songs often call out to Jesus or God for inspiration in some form or another.
The sparser numbers draw you in to the unfolding tale, where the characters feel real, such as on “The River”, a murder ballad in which Tapp deftly sketches out the grim story of how a Chevrolet came to be sunken at the bottom of a river. “Killing machine” kicks off with the lyric “Another man dead, I didn’t want to kill” before taking us through the protagonist’s thoughts like a haunting movie reel. Best of the slow songs is the title track that closes this collection – an atmospheric meditation about those lost finding their way, played out against a soundscape of acoustic and slide guitar. But if it’s monsters riffs you’re after, or huge slabs of guitar backed by percussive bombast, you won’t be disappointed because the album has all of this in spades. Songs like “The Great Unknown”, “Gone (Not Dead)”, “Cold Black Water” and “Two Keys and a Good Book” are just a few of the songs that will have you tapping your feet and reaching for that air guitar.
Mountain straddles the worlds of dark acoustic folk and modern electrified hard rock, fusing some blistering riffs with a captivating lyrical theme to produce a powerful listening experience. Although religious imagery abounds, it’s never preachy, and when you read that Chris Tapp is a cancer survivor, who has battled through years of treatment, some of the biblical references make sense. Maybe he found comfort in religion, maybe he was always religious, or maybe I’m simply reading too much into it. Once thing is for sure, whatever the reasons, Mountain is a superb piece of lyrically astute blues-rock that you’ll want to listen to time and again.
Finally, in researching this article, I was absolutely gobsmacked to discover that Mountain is a crowdfunded album, one of the aims of which is to cover the costs of the forthcoming WAYS album! Before its appearance as a 12-track album, WAYS will first be released as a series of 4-track EPs, starting with the acoustic-based “white” EP this June. The promise of new music so hot-on-the-heels of Mountain is fantastic news for fans of The Cold Stares, and I definitely count myself in that number after listening to this fabulous album.
Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.