This week we dissect Hush or Howl by Black Pistol Fire.
Listen to my review here.
You can find their whole discography for purchase here.
Hello and welcome to Junkman Radio. I’m your host, Greg von Teig. Today we’ll be looking at a gem of a record, Black Pistol Fire’s 2014 release Hush or Howl.
My exposure to Black Pistol Fire was nearly accidental. In 2015, modern blues legend Gary Clark Jr was coming to House of Blues Boston for the first time since I’d turned old enough to go. I was less than enthused by his Sonny Boy Slim album, but he is such a phenomenal guitarist that I knew I needed to see him live at least once. Clark had brought with him an opening group from his home town of Austin. When my father and I arrived at the Clark show, we knew nothing of the opener, and didn’t have high hopes for them. It wasn’t long into their first number that it became clear that this duo of guitar and drums were delivering hard rock and blues with the intensity of Stevie Ray Vaughn. They were described as “an all time great arena rock band distilled into two men.” That opening set was probably the best concert I’d ever been to, until I saw them again that December.
Sadly, there is not yet a Black Pistol Fire live album. Their performances in the studio were not as on point and full on their first two albums, but their third release, Hush or Howl, did a beyond adequate job of bringing all that energy and power into the studio. Listen for yourself.
Black Pistol Fire combines a few different movements to shape their sound. The most obvious similarity is to Led Zeppelin. Kevin McKeown’s riff heavy writing style and serious distortion of his guitar make that clear. But Zeppelin was always significantly more elaborate than BPF. McKeown’s energy mirrors that of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, tho in my opinion he goes far beyond it. His guitar’s tone and effects are also very reminiscent of Zeppelin. What makes BPF very much unlike Zeppelin is that it’s more directly inspired by the blues greats. Using more notes from blues scales and less rigid rhythms, BPF found its roots in Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, and Bo Diddly as far as writing goes.
But what stands out to most people about BPF is the size of their sound in contrast to the size of their band. A lot of artists really struggle to get the most out of their instruments, but it seems BPF has mastered it. Eric Owen’s phenomenal drumming sounds like a reincarnation of Hendrix’s drummer Mitch Mitchell – particularly in his ability to fill sonic space. McKeown’s guitar work is almost deceptive in its size. Many tracks feel like they must be overdubbed, but only two on this album are. His playing style evolves out of a John Lee Hooker style blues melding chords and picking into one flowing stream of melody with a speed that masks its simplicity.
BPF also has an excellent sense of dynamics. McKeown knows when to rest the guitar and let the silence ring. Whether the muted section is punctuated by a subtler beat by Owen or McKeown’s always enthralling voice, the quiet adds to the energy and emotional volume of the intense shredding. This is particularly well demonstrated in the fifth track, Hipster Shakes.
Now, Hush or Howl is not the only album in which you can hear this. They have three others. I chose to examine this as I feel it distills what makes BPF great. The eponymous album and Big Beat ’59 are fun, but the duo had not yet become accustomed to the studio. Hush or Howl was when they really realized their own potential, and made the record the first two had tried but failed to be. They have had one release since then, Don’t Wake The Riot. I love this fourth album. It has a lot going for it, but it uses a wider variety of sounds than Hush or Howl, so while I completely endorse Don’t Wake The Riot, Hush or Howl is the album to start with in the Black Pistol Fire catalog.