To be released on March 17, 2023 (Native Sons)
Almost four years since their fantastic debut album, The Natives Are Restless, was co-written and recorded by vocalist Ashton Blake and his previous bandmates, Kentucky’s Native Sons have returned with their sophomore album Shadow Head. A lot has changed for the young band leader and mainstay in that relatively short time — namely, the dissolution of the band’s former record label (HighVolMusic), following the untimely passing of founder Bill Chavis (R.I.P.). Chavis and HighVolMusic are credited with ultimately unearthing that debut album and delivering it to the masses. Originally conceptualized under the band moniker Newmachine, Blake put the finishing touches on that LP when he initially joined the band, but was the only member left to carry the torch after the pandemic halted progress on its eventual release. Following extensive touring to support The Natives Are Restless, the band has returned in 2023 with an ever evolving line-up that seems to have finally gelled into a solid foundation. It’s not easy holding a consistent roster of players together in this day and age of the fickle music business. The trials and tribulations of a rigorous touring schedule can take a toll, and when more lucrative opportunities arise, it can be difficult to focus on that dream of a successful career in music while keeping hope alive for that big break. But cream always rises to the top, and optimistically this release will garner the band the recognition that they deserve. The ten tracks on the album are a continuation of where things left off with The Natives Are Restless and is sure to please the band’s fanbase but also exhibits a progression in songwriting and harder edge to the band.
Things get off to a markedly nice start, commencing with the colossal, swaying hammer of “Danger”, which makes it immediately apparent that Shadow Head isn’t a horse of a different color than that of its predecessor. Taking the band on only a slight sonic detour into darker, heavier waters than their debut, the song itself benefits from a dizzying guitar solo that accents the relentless stomp of the album’s opening track. It’s just a taste of the impeccable fretwork that follow throughout. The guitar duo of Victor Adriel and JT Shea are pure fire here and for the duration of the LP, with that pairing bringing an added notch of musicianship to the band. Unfortunately, the album’s credits don’t differentiate which guitarist is playing lead versus rhythm on each track. At least not at this point. “Again Tomorrow” is right up that alley and is a direct hit to the face with a pummeling, dirge of a groove that features perfectly pocketed drumming credited to newcomer Grady Steel. It’s an uplifting reminder that the sun will continue to rise, and the power of perseverance is sometimes rewarded with second chances. At least that’s my takeaway from it. But really, the lyrics are vague enough that they’re wisely left open to interpretation by the listener. That’s a quality often found in a perfected songwriting craft.
With an indelible melody, the catchy “Another Day” is a glaring contender for potential release as a future single/video. The melodies and memorable chorus of the song are a cut above, rendering it a clear standout early on. While their sound is undeniably rooted in blues-based hard rock, there are also subtle touches of modern rock here and elsewhere throughout the album. That’s to be expected with a Native Sons record, and particularly with Shadow Head proving to be a stylistic expansion on ground that they’ve already covered. These elements are all within their wheelhouse and don’t come across as calculated. It’s not as if they’re suddenly trying to sound like Disturbed. If anything, their incorporation of other stylistic nuances will improve their compatibility for a wider array of touring partners. I could see the band opening for Mötley Crüe, but I can also see them touring with Shinedown.
The midway point of the album gives way to the melancholy ballad “Lost”, which reflects on past decisions made (presumably bad ones). Hindsight is 20/20, but at the very least, the Native Sons got a good song out of the deal. It does well to showcase another side of the band and adds some contrast to the full-throttle rockers that permeate the remainder of Shadow Head. Somber/screaming guitars, heartfelt lyrics and lament over a loss are usually synonymous with massive radio appeal. If “Lost” lands in the right hands, it potentially has “hit” written all over it. That downshift in gears is only momentary, and then it’s pedal to the metal once again. “Red Leather Woman” appears to be an ode to someone, but it’s unclear exactly who. I can take a wild guess. Regardless, the band have crafted one hell of a tribute to her in this song which features soaring vocals and a rapid-fire beat that’s sure to win you a speeding ticket. The lyrics do get a bit repetitive at times, but not to the point of being a deal breaker. It’s a fun song that will sound great in the band’s live show.
“Let Me Go” is another bruiser that moves along nicely to a tight groove while packing plenty of punch. Lyrically, the song’s protagonist asks that he be released from the web of a slanderous situation. It had me wondering if this is a case of art imitating life and if the song is, in fact, autobiographical. I’m not sure, but either way it’s a crushing three-minute opus. “I’ve Got Time” has a crashing rhythm and features another soulful, expressive solo that is a true attribute to the cut. Guitarists JT Shea and Victor Adriel have undoubtedly raised the bar on all future Native Sons records and their performances throughout Shadow Head are nothing short of awe-inspiring while not outshining the songs as a whole. What good is a flashy guitar solo if it has no context within the song? One of the album’s best songs, “Drama”, was saved for nearly last. It was also keenly chosen as the first single and video from Shadow Head. Watching the video, I can’t help but be reminded of Dio’s clip for “Rainbow In The Dark”. Perhaps it’s the street-level camera dollying. In any event, it’s a stellar tune and the video treatment works well for it. This song would also do very well at FM, and I can’t think of a higher compliment than to be compared to the late, great Ronnie James Dio.
Just when you think it’s safe to come up for air, “Shadow Head” pulls a quick bait and switch on us with the subdued guitar passage that opens it up. In the eleventh hour, the title track is only a slight departure from the rest of the record in that the tempo isn’t quite as breakneck. Even so, it’s got a nice stomp to it. The lyrics are self-reflective but very metaphorical — particularly at the chorus, where Blake bemoans a “climb up the mountain” to declare “I am man”. His impassioned roar left this listener curious about the perilous journey that he’s referring to in the song. Whatever the meaning, it’s a struggle that’s well conveyed. I’m looking forward to the physical release of the album, which will hopefully contain the lyrics to the songs for greater analysis. The album ends on a high note with the buzz-saw riffs that kick off “Too Late” in sinister fashion, raising the roof and leaving my ears satisfied with what they had just experienced for the past thirty-two minutes. A very subtly placed tambourine jingle also lifts the song at the chorus and gives it a needed touch of color.
With just ten songs included, the album is very concise and gets right to the point. Ultimately, I prefer that over an LP stacked with filler at the detriment of brevity. Interestingly, I can play the album sequenced in reverse, and it doesn’t sound top-heavy. Meaning, the best songs aren’t weighted to the beginning of the record as is common practice. Given that this project was written, recorded, and produced independently, the finished product is a phenomenal follow-up to their debut. As a fan of that record, I had high expectations which have mostly been met. Native Sons have cooked up an astounding album with jaw-dropping performances that are a befitting sequel to The Natives are Restless but also have them road mapped into the great wide open. I’m interested to see where their career takes them and if future releases incorporate a broader array of influences that I know the band have.
As I listen back to Shadow Head, Blake’s soulful, emotive wail also brings to mind a very well-known bluesy, hard rock band of the late ‘80s / early ‘90s – Lynch Mob. As a long-time fan of both bands and having caught them in concert several times, I can’t help but think that he would be a cosmic fit to front that veteran band. If and when he decides to expand his resume (or an opportunity would arise), Blake’s vocals and stage presence would be an optimal fit for George Lynch’s long-running outfit. Just my two cents, but I stand behind that statement and you heard it here first. It’s still way too early in the new year to even fathom a favorite album list for 2023, but Shadow Head is sure to be a contender. This is one that I’ll have in regular rotation and be cranking for quite some time. I think Bill Chavis would be proud of how far Native Sons have come.
02. Again Tomorrow
03. Another Day
05. Red Leather Woman
06. Let Me Go
07. I’ve Got Time
09. Shadow Head
10. Too Late
Ashton Blake – lead vocals
JT Shea – lead guitar
Victor Adriel – lead guitar
Grady Steel – drums, background vocals
Truman Fleming – bass
Produced, mixed and mastered by JT Shea
Reviewed by Jeff Onorato for Sleaze Roxx, February 2023
Native Sons‘ “Drama” video:
Native Sons‘ “Red Leather Woman” video: