“Think Soundgarden. Think Muse,” was the suggestion offered when former Heaven’s Basement vocalist Aaron Buchanan began describing this his new band. More some Faustian pact between The Manic Street Preachers and The Darkness possibly; to be more specific let’s accept the initial flamboyant outrage that latter act presented the mainstream listener with and suggest their intent to be to go beyond simply shocking us and seek to produce art rock. Dig further back, and the overall impact of The Man With Stars On His Knees is as if Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack album had crashed on a runway, skidded then collided headlong down Mick Ronson’s Slaughter On 10th Avenue.
Interestingly, while Buchanan’s voice approximates Freddie Mercury in its tonal textures with a more mainline rock streak also running through it, it’s in his applying a knowing whispered narrative that he most recalls the late Queen frontman, and an aspect straight imitators fail to use in their acts, tending to accentuate the high campness of the man. Here it proves an effective weapon; the devil in the detail as it were, leans more towards theatrical rock, and while it comes on pan-sexual overall in its emotive perspectives is possibly more asexual overall in outcome. But let’s talk about the songs…
A bass pulses and throbs as drums beat out a slow heavy beat, and whispering Buchanan asks “Are you with me?” suddenly exploding into heavy riffage as you await ‘Show Me What You’re Made Of’ to really get going; only for it end abruptly. The couple of seconds of silence that ensue are just the right the length for you to think: What the fu – ? But before you get there the next number starts trundling forth with him singing: “I’m sick of it, sick of it”. It rocks up a bundle, guitars searing, secondary vocals high in harmony, and a nice little solo structured in the manner of Brian May without aping his actual sound. ‘All the Things You’ve Said And Done’ it’s called and it’s rather good.
Next, sneering mockney mannerisms park up accompanied by a wiry little lead line that sounds like The Clash’s Mick Jones aping his heroes Mott, while the song itself is The Darkness doing an Artic Monkeys while shuffling off for a few more musical asides along the way. ‘Dancin’ Down Below’ marries 80s metal riffs to the kind of dance rhythm the Great British public’s become more accustomed to listening to on Strictly Come Dancing though I don’t think they often chant out lines like “Pray for me, I’m the devil who needs you” on that programme. It then slows down to something akin to a Bernstein/Sondheim show tune with added guitar overdrive. Honest.
More likely a story of past bad management rather than love ‘The Devil That Needs You’ is shimmery toreador rock breaking up in the middle to a wall of noise and credible feedback, while ‘Journey Out There’ is resonating indy rock, empowered with high noted rock choruses and an acoustic section. Atmospheric, charming, and potentially an epic live. No doubt that was the intention behind title track ‘The Man With Stars On His Knees’ too. Broken chords build over a not-so-gentle ballad for grunting bass notes offer menace underneath while weary vocals sound reminiscent of Muse before reaching a big poodle rock lighter waving chorus, with lots of “oohs” and “aahs” thrown in. There’s an almost country rock guitar solo until military style drumming enters the scene wherein two guitars harmonise, the vocal harmonies themselves coming on like The Beatles as it surges towards conclusion. A song in search of the meaning of life, power, wish fulfilment and sundry variations, kind of.
Next up, a guitar solos mournfully before Buchanan joins in singing “Who will join me in heaven or hell?” and it’s kind of reminiscent of a couple of quieter moments on Judas Priest’s Sad Wings of Destiny on this here ‘A God Is No Friend’. Roaring tortured vocals ensue as he continues to explore the existential road less travelled in his vocal deliverance. As guitars scream out histrionically and in counterpoint Buchanan offers softer moaning “whoa whoas” before this more emotive number ends with a long sustained guitar note. In counterpoint ‘Left Me For Dead’ is pummelling grunge borrowed metal with shifting tempos and ‘Mind Of A Mute’ starts as a Gregorian chant but is cut to the quick by a deep scythe sweeping riff that comes in and out between raging vocals.
The original album version ends with ‘Morals’ a fanfare in waltz time giving way to chugging guitar, whispered vocals, a series of effects and a classic Queen feel before walking tall like some heavy metal broadway show tune, Buchanan’s voice rocking out, giving it a bit of hi-camp in between but finishing with an unholy scream as guitars wring out around him, something seemingly new added every bar or so, before stopping as sudden as the album’s opening number.
This special edition also features three live tracks, along with two new studio recordings. Of the latter, ‘Fire in The Fields Of Mayhem’ is hard throbbing rock of the kind Queen went punk on during their News of the World era – A song of school boy crushes and how twisted minds grow exponentially as we age, or something like that; either way a very able guitar solo gets to ring out. More mega-thrashing is offered with ‘Undertow’ only for it to give way to what I can only inadequately describe as trip hop designed for ballet. Later we get another powerful rush of scintillating heavy rock that pushes and shakes with gusto over which Buchanan sings anthemically. Good stuff to end on that shows the band are still thinking and expanding ideas creatively.
Mart Trail (bass) and Paul White (drums) are featured on those new tracks, and alongside Aaron Buchanan throughout are his sister Laurie and Tom McCarthy, both on guitar and vocals, and this special edition is available through Listenable Records.
Aaron Buchanan & The Cult Classics are to be applauded for broadening the current hard rock scenes horizons. Somewhere in the 80s we decided to pigeonhole rock into subgenres, from neo-prog to death metal and all points in between. Our musical vocabulary got larger but we began putting self-imposed blinkers on what could be achieved. Yes, being less derivative in places and a bigger production job would have aided this album greatly, and it won’t be for everyone – its very busy-ness took me several listens to get used to yet now there are tunes that won’t leave my head – but for a first attempt (with some tasty side salads on this edition) it’s above good work and let’s hope more bands out there begin reaching for the stars.