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Hard To Kill - Heaven & Earth

Oh my….

If you’re a fan of this band or simply a fan of traditional hard rock, you better prepare yourself for this one. Those that know the band are saying, “Yeah I know, their Dig album was great.” While I couldn’t agree more, I have to refer to the old adage of “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Heaven & Earth’s last album, Dig, captured the top spot for Dr. Music’s Album of the Year in 2013, beating out Black Sabbath’s 13 and other excellent releases. Dig was marked as the return of true, no frills rock and roll. It was a great record. With the release of Hard To Kill, Dig seems to get buried deeper in shadow with every listen. Hard To Kill is one of the best rock records you’ll ever hear. Honestly.

The musicianship here is outstanding. Stuart Smith is one of the best guitarists in the world today. Once a young protege of Ritchie Blackmore, Smith plays with tremendous passion, precision, and overall feel. The riffs are sharp and pack one hell of a punch. The solos are all creative and perfectly molded to each song individually. But, one of the highlights of Smith’s playing is when he adds little nuances to the song composition. For example, in the title track, there is a lyric that reads “Money slipped through my fingers like water,” in which Smith adds a trill that gives an aural illusion of trickling water. It’s a small added extra that is perfectly placed and played by someone who’s passionate and paying close attention to the feel of the song. In “Walk Away,” the lyric reads “You’re gonna go down,” and Smith does a dive bomb with the rhythmic chord. This kind of thing completely reinforces the lyric and adds that spark that makes things extra special. The whole album is packed with these little added extras. 

I could rattle on for months about how great Stuart Smith is and the reasons why, but one of the most important aspects of his style that applies directly to this record is the way he partners with the keyboards. Whether he is mirroring the keys or playing in harmony, his sound harkens back to Blackmore’s Rainbow/Deep Purple years. It’s such an integral piece of this glorious puzzle, and again it is perfectly played by Stuart Smith.

There’s not too many people that could stand next to Stuart Smith and not have a shadow cast upon them, but Joe Retta is a beacon of rock and roll glory as he grooves with Smith and the massive band around him. Retta is probably the most talented singer in rock and roll. With the strength and range of David Coverdale and Ronnie James Dio, and the bluesy passion, soul, and feel of Paul Rodgers, Retta is absolutely lethal here. Just when you think he sounds best doing the “Kill The King”-inspired tempo of the title track, a song like “L.A. Blues” comes on and you get captivated by his soulful humming and warm, bluesy tone. He does it all, and then some.

This release gives us a different lineup than Dig on keys and rhythm section. The addition of Ty Baillie on keys is a great one, as he compliments Smith’s guitar perfectly and lays down a beautiful Hammond B3 sound, a la Jon Lord or Don Airey, on much of this material. The one and only Kenny Aronoff (Bob Seger, John Cougar Mellencamp, The Rolling Stones) is perfect on drums, while Lynn Sorensen (Bad Company, Paul Rodgers Band) is spectacular on bass. Check out the bass lines in “The Game Has Changed” and “Hard To Kill”. Wow….

As for the song composition, it couldn’t fit the talent and style of the players any better. The title track, after it jumps out of the gate with ferocity, shows heavy leanings toward Rainbow’s “Kill The King,” and the “Beautiful Monsters” riff immediately reminded me of Free and Paul Rodgers’ “Walk In My Shadow”. “Bad Man” is probably the closest Retta gets to the Paul Rodgers sound though, and it’s one of the best moments on the record. “L.A. Blues” is another that showcases Retta’s soulful and dirty blues style in spades. We get songs like “Till It’s Over,” which made me think of the earliest Whitesnake material, and “Bleed Me Dry,” which is a softer, more hook-laden melodic sound. But, the songs that I find myself putting on repeat are “Walk Away” and “Monster”. These two songs are as muscular as a young Schwarzenegger, with more rock star attitude than an adolescent Mick Jagger. If you crank “Monster” while you’re driving, make sure to stop at an ATM. You’re going to need cash to pay for the speeding tickets. The song should come with a Secretary Of State warning sticker.

And on top of all this great stuff, there’s the quirky bonus stuff, too. Look for Joe Retta to lend some mad harmonica skills to “Hellfire” and “The Game Has Changed,” with the latter song incorporating a rhythm similar to The Fratelli’s “Chelsea Dagger,” which has come to be known as the Chicago Blackhawks goal scoring song. With me being a Chicago kid, that little nod (intentional or not) is never a bad thing.

Honestly, this band has made it their mission to bring back real “balls out,” classic hard rock. Just like Dig did before this, Hard To Kill stands tall and proud in its mission. There is a class of bands that are actually doing “old school” rock in the same vein as Heaven & Earth, but the difference between this band and the rest is the fact that Heaven & Earth could teach the class.

To read the Dr. Music interview with Stuart Smith, click here.

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