A Lifetime’s Complicity
While many band members meet during their school days – for example, Flea & Kiedis; McCartney & Harrison; and Bowie & Frampton – not many, like Black Pistol Fire’s guitarist Kevin McKeown and drummer Eric Owen, met in kindergarten.
And now - after five albums, a 14 week number 1, and shared stages with Gary Clark Jr, Heart and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – the complicity that the Toronto-born Austin-based rock duo share has produced their best work to date, Look Alive (29 January 2021; Black Hill Records).
“When we first started out a decade ago, I had one guitar and one guitar pedal, and Eric had his drums and a green Dodge Neon - that was it,” says McKeown, “… experimentation was not an option.” So to mix things up and advance their southern rock and garage punk sound, the duo joined forces with co-producer Jacob Sciba (Gary Clark Jr, Warren Haynes) and mixer Vance Powell (White Stripes, Chris Stapleton) and introduced various effects, a bass synth, and electronic drums. The result is a much more diverse and creative sounding piece of work.
The band chose the name Look Alive because it “seemed to tie everything together lyrically and thematically,” says McKeown. “Because a lot of it seems pretty dark. But also, it’s like you’re pushing through that darkness.” In that sense the songs reflect the experience of many during the pandemic; specifically Black Pistol Fire have struggled because playing live is one of their great strengths.
Touring, however, also has its down sides, and this is reflected in one of the album’s best tracks, Hope In Hell. “After a while,” McKeown says, “you see that this [lifestyle] is taking bits of you that you didn’t realize. Basically, that song is all about sacrifice and what we’re willing to sacrifice.” McKeown reflects on this in the lyric: “You can have it all… but how much do you want to lose?”
The new record kicks off however with a strong synth beat on its titular track Look Alive, which acts like a statement of intent for what’s to come. Soon the drums and a bluesy guitar riff enter to create a driving rhythm on a song that is replete with mood and atmosphere.
Pick Your Poison is another standout track whose theme of heartache is reflected in the song’s thunderous and passionate rock sound. McKeown plays a Gibson SG on the live version of the cut from The Hawthorne Theater and a J-45 on the wonderful acoustic version from the back of a moving car, shot in June 2020. The rain pouring down onto the car windows adds to the feeling of isolation and desolation, but contrasts with the warmth and emotion the duo are generating within.
Black Halo with its Duane Eddy feel and Temper Temper with its funky backbeat showcase the diversity of the band’s sound, while Level starts off calm before exploding into a high powered guitar medley that is sure to ignite the audience when the band get to climb back on stage.
Always On My Mind is likely to be another crowd pleaser with its powerful rock n roll dynamic and “stoke the fire, fan the flames” lyric. The album closer Beyond The Blue is another heartbreak song that builds from some lovely guitar picking into a gutwrenching solo.
Look Alive breaks new ground and the band clearly cannot wait to get out back on the road to play it. It is impossible to predict where McKeown and Owen’s lifelong friendship will take them next but it is likely to be on terrain that is both higher and unexpected. “I love the creative aspect,” McKeown says. “Waking up in the morning and grabbing the guitar and having no idea what’s going to happen...”