Northern Ireland’s Big Guns have no shame in living in the era where Guns n’ Roses and AC/DC ruled the airwaves. There’s a constant vibe in their music that hearkens back to leather jackets, Harley packs and the grimy, dirty hard rock of the 70’s and 80’s. Big Guns’ debut, Down But Not Out, is an album with a lot of energy behind its rough riffs and crowd-packing choruses, but it still doesn’t have enough Big Guns in it as opposed to the band’s influences.
Despite the focus on the riff-heavy rock from AC/DC, vocalist Kieran “Twerp” McArdle doesn’t try to imitate the kind of sound you’d expect from Brian Johnson (and definitely not Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, the singer from another of the band’s influences). Instead, McArdle channels the grungy, but ranged vocal style of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and the era’s questionable resultant, post-grunge. “The Devil’s Highway” (aside from taking a huge cue from AC/DC in name alone) lets McArdle stretch that vocal range considerably, and while he doesn’t reach the climactic highs of Cornell’s, it’s still a shining moment of promise for Big Guns. You can hear his lungs shaking at the intensity behind his voice.
The band makes a superb showing with “Remember Me,” a blisteringly intense anthem chock full of invigorating left-turns and lots of variety in between the surging pace. Aside from McArdle’s furious, right-in-your-face vocals and a fantastic mix of riffs and solos from guitarist Daniel “Baldo” O’Toole (with the solos drawing comparisons to Judas Priest and early thrash metal), drummer Lisa Howe unleashes a blitz of fast fills and smashing beats, shining as a rhythmic machine behind the kit. “Remember Me” is the kind of song where a band simply doesn’t hold back, letting loose every trick in their book in one massive swell. It pays off: “Remember Me” is easily the best song on the whole album.
That kind of performance makes the rest of the album sound weaker in comparison. The formula of catchy beats leading to a thunderous punch of a hook at the end of the chorus is done rather excessively. Opener “Red Eyed and Rolling” and the underwhelming “A Song For a Friend” both show this formula in effect even before the halfway mark, so expect that abused tactic to ring repeatedly across the eight tracks. “Kiss and Tell” continues that repetition, tugging at those radio-friendly throwbacks that modern classic rock seems to grasp at. The band continues to try and capture that nostalgic fury with a cover of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”, which while not terrible, neither brings their own sound into the mix enough, nor pays tribute to Young’s iconic vocal style. It clearly sounds like a cover. The brief closer “Forever and Always” is a dark, evanescent simmer that slowly fades away after its finely tuned guitar solo. It’s a very atmospheric track, but as you can deduce from its short length and status as a closer, it’s the not the kind of music the band wants to make.
Classic rock means different things to different people, but to the musicians in Big Guns, it means something important. By covering a Neil Young gem and channeling their love for AC/DC and Judas Priest, they’ve shown that they’re not trying to crutch up the past, but to inject some adrenaline back into the old bones of the 70’s and 80’s. The result is an album that, while catchy and pretty intense, still doesn’t have the full drive behind it. “The Devil’s Highway” and “Remember Me” are songs that the band should definitely keep close to heart, as they aren’t just fine examples of classic rock-infused fervor, but they give the band their own identity; these are great songs and they’re great Big Guns songs. But for the stumbling points like “A Song for a Friend” and “Fall From Grace”, you see a band who’ve analyzed the formulas of classic rock, but not the creativity. The hooky choruses can only last so long before sounding stale. Big Guns’ debut demonstrates a walking of the line behind reverence and downright reliance; if the band wants to move into the big leagues, they need to channel their own spirits just as much as they channel the spirits of their influences.