by Pat Fox
Everyone has their band. It was the one you found as a teenager and could take refuge in when the weight of the adolescent years became too much. Maybe you’re proud to admit listening to them, maybe you’re not. But even today when you hear them your heartbeat quickens just that little bit. You’ve retreated back into that teenage safe haven. It might have been The Cure or D12, could have been Marilyn Manson or All Saints, we’ve all got that band. For me it was Led Zeppelin, with their rock, blues and Tolkien-instilled guitar ballads. So the chance to review Robert Plant’s new album Carry Fire was something of a no-brainer for me. It also raised the issue of whether or not I would be able to review it as neutral as possible. I’ll let you be the judge.
Opening with the smooth allegro tempo of ‘The May Queen’, Plant sets out his sound for Carry Fire, blending folk-blues, rock and infusing it with world music to give a distinctive texture and tone. With strong rhythm guitar and percussion sections mixed with the lead guitar blues melodies, accompanied sometimes with violin and other strings, Plant is able to create an album of shifting tempos; from Grave to Festoso and not losing anything in between.
In ‘New World’ he introduces Midlands Soul, a sound that can only come from Staffordshire’s post-industrial landscape. On the title track, ‘Carry Fire’, he brings a simple Eastern style arrangement that carries that sound across, while ‘Heaven Sent’ combines it with electrical distorted beats and an esoteric slant.
Despite its shifting tempo, or maybe because of it, the album’s arrangement doesn’t come across as repetitive or lacklustre. Each track is well defined, unique and original, despite some crossover, while the listing arrangement means they feed into each other smoothly without being jarring or becoming indistinct.
I’ve listened to a few singer/songwriters in the later stages of their career and there is often a terrible attempt to try and capture their older sound. Natural wear and tear on the vocal cords renders it hard if not impossible and I was worried that if Plant tried to use the same Tenor he had in Zeppelin days it would come across as strained. But he’s matured into his voice, still able to hit the higher notes but with a deeper, richer voice compared to his early days.
The whole album has been filled with the spirit of the 60’s and 70’s: not trying to recreate the same vibe nor shoehorn in the sound but taking the protest and the soul and making it for today’s world. In many ways Carry Fire is a protest album, maybe not to the same degree of one by The Levellers but a protest album none the less. ‘Carving Up The World Against …A Wall and Not a Fence’ is a shout against presidents, dictators and the doubling up of the guard for our safety against the violence they have caused, while ‘Bones of Saints’ questions who’s buying the bullets and the guns as the planes are being loaded and madness is in the air. Some are happy that Plant hasn’t laid the politics on too thick but you can’t get away from the feel of protest and questioning of authority throughout. Even the simple love song ‘A Way with Words’ features a motif of a world being shaken by others.
The use of landscapes through the album, from the aforementioned Midland Soul of ‘New World’ and ‘Keep in Hid’ to the Eastern arrangements of ‘Carry Fire’ makes it an album of the land as much as protest: the sense that protest is coming from the very soil itself against those that are breaking it down.
It’s a great album, a rich album, one worth your time and money.
Carry Fire is out now on Nonesuch Records.