Iain Hearfield – Blues Station Zebra Self-Release (Oct 2017) http://www.hearfield.co.uk 14 songs; Total Length: 50:50
Iain Hearfield is a blues rock musician who has been recording and performing for more than forty years. His latest release, Blues Station Zebra is a dark and stormy night somewhere in an alley, in a seedy part of London.
Released in Oct 2017, Blues Station Zebra is the 6th CD released by the UK-based Hearfield. It contains 14 original tunes, recorded between 2013 and 2017, on which Hearfield played all of the instruments. This is a very interesting CD. It’s not what you would consider a typical blues CD by any stretch, but its blues influence is unmistakable. It harks back to the British blues rock scene of the late 60s, with bands like Savoy Brown, early Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and even early Led Zeppelin. Working with themes that might be ripped out of a pulp fiction novel or from your favorite film noir, Hearfield builds-up stories of the things that go on in the shadows of darkened, deserted alleyways, and builds a fairly descriptive story-line for each song.
The songs themselves are moody and atmospheric, and the guitars feel as if they might have been tracked in the late 60s or early 70s, with multi-track layering, and generous amounts of reverb, delay, and varying degrees of distortion. The result is a very listenable collection of songs that are evocative of the past yet feel at home in the present time. The entire album feels to be of a piece, and the songs all hang together nicely.
The entire CD is book ended by two brief instrumental tracks, with aggressive drumming – assisted by drummer George De Canha – along with some ambient sound effects that help to set the tone for this unique collection of songs. According to Hearfield, the CD was inspired by a short story he had written, entitled “The Chandelier Beat.” Here’s the opening paragraph from the story: “It was pitch dark outside. The storm that engulfed the English countryside flew by as the train, caught within its often irregular rhythmic beat, hastened towards Sheffield.”
Evocative, right? The musical version of “The Chandelier Beat” is a hypnotic instrumental that formally opens the CD. It has a very theatrical feel to it, and could very easily be a soundtrack under the opening or closing credits of a TV series or film about mobsters and the underworld. Using what I presume to be a drum loop, synthesizers, and some ambient noises, accompanied by a reverb-drenched guitar track, Hearfield sets the tone for the entire CD and lets you know that this is not going to be your typical blues collection.
The next track, “Mean Machine,” is the first with a vocal, with a narrative about a man of questionable ethics in a difficult situation. It’s punctuated by a pulsing, slapback drum groove, droning tremolo rhythm guitar, and yet more reverb-drenched lead guitar weaving in and out of the vocal. Other notable songs include “Bar Room Incident;” “Honed to a Fine Edge;” the Prog-influenced “Zed;” and “Vivid.”
If there’s a weak spot in Hearfield’s songwriting, it’s his lyricism… or, rather, his lack of it. His songs all tell a story, but do so in perhaps the most literal way possible. While the music itself is very atmospheric and evocative, the lyrics are often simplistic and far too literal, and don’t really mate as well as they could to the sophistication of the music itself. Maybe it would have been better if these same stories told in the rich, provocative language of, say, a Tom Waits, or even a Mick Jagger, using the kind of richly descriptive – yet still decidedly ambiguous – language that he used during the Sticky Fingers period, as well as for solo songs like “Memo from Turner.”
That aside, Blues Station Zebra is very enjoyable, and it has withstood repeated listening, with each subsequent pass providing a closer look at these story songs, along with Hearfield’s tasteful guitar playing.
Maybe won’t fill the bill for blues purists but if you’re a fan of old-school British blues rock, keep your mind – and your ears – open, because there are some great grooves and interesting songs on this CD.
Written by Dave Orban.
Sleeve notes for the 'RED' cd from Steve Lally
When I first saw Iain Hearfield’s band Red Herring, I was suitably impressed by the tight three-piece unit that they were with a very full sound, essential in a trio but not always the norm. It quickly became apparent that Iain was not only an especially competent and refreshingly fluid guitarist; he was also an uncompromisingly masterful exponent of guitar special effects. Iain uses FX to create ambience and atmosphere and this adds to the bands fullness of sound. However it is so subtle, you are hardly aware of their use. I believe it is the atmospheric value of Iain’s music, both vocally and instrumentally, that puts him a cut above the rest.
The next time I saw Iain, I asked him if he had considered writing a blues album, after all, the cover versions of blues in the Red Herring repertoire were more than just competent, they were wonderful. Taking the CD album Howard’s Garage as an example of what level of excellence can be achieved by an independent artist, I had great faith in Iain’s ability to produce a high quality and quite possibly, a uniquely styled blues CD.
As Iain wrote and recorded tracks for this proposed CD, he sent me the pre- production drafts. The first three tracks I received were as impressive as I had expected. Some weeks later, I received another six songs to give my humble opinion upon. The sophistication of the recording just knocked me out. I played the tracks over and over again in my car, hanging on to every note. I marvelled at the clever overdubbing of the guitars, the melodic and riffy bass lines, the intelligent use of cymbals as accents, and most importantly, the way those components were blended so perfectly. Iain is as impressive as a studio technician as he is a musician.
All too often the term “Solo Album” is misleading where an established band member recruits guests and session players to produce the record. This would not ring true with Iain Hearfield. Apart from two tracks with Dave Samuels, the Red Herring bassist who happened to be passing at the time and had “itchy fingers”, Iain has sang, played guitar, bass and drums, and produced and recorded the whole album solo. No mean achievement.
Guitar buffs might be interested in the details of the instruments used during the recording of this excellent CD. Apart from Iain’s faithful Stratocaster, the tracks Solitary Man and Sentenced to Death By The Blues feature Iain’s Squire Venus twelve-string, whilst a De Armond Jetstar, closely based on Muddy Waters’ legendary Guild Thunderbird, was used on the third solo of Whats Goin’ On. An extremely rare Gibson solid 335S Professional, with its wonderfully varied range can be heard on Just The Dark and Old Ghost.
Another important aspect of Iain’s music is the lyrical one. The lines “Woke up this morning” and the like just aren’t part of this musician’s phrasebook. Instead we have hit-men, vampires and stalkers and even Baldock gets a mention, which is a change from Louisiana! Always interesting and covering diverse subjects, it came as no surprise that that Iain’s creativity with the pen came to the fore. On three tracks Iain’s music is coupled with the lyrics of Duncan Mangham. Iain emphasised the importance of this particular partner in music. This fruitful partnership was fused in the heat of the South African sunshine many years ago. Iain spent some time extensively touring South Africa’s Holiday Inn / Southern Sun circuit, honing his craft by night and following his hobby of photography by day. The partnership has spawned some fine compositions including the Red Herring repertoire staple “Flying Tigers” and the excellent “Howard’s Garage” inclusion “Complicated”. The song writing duo also came across the Red Herring drummer, Howard Evans (of Howard’s Garage Fame!) on the Dark Continent. The three have remained great friends ever since.
So to recap, I wrote earlier that I had faith in Iain Hearfield to produce a high quality and unusual blues CD. In hindsight, what is my opinion? Blues is an old musical genre but it has been breathed upon by the winds of time on this CD album. This is no high-gain Les Paul/Mesa Boogie supercharged highway to Hades and with respect to blues purists, nor is it a plantation dirge. Iain Hearfield has delicately crafted his own very unique style of 21st Century Blues. Here it is for you to enjoy.
- Steve Lally, Editor
Rock of the North.