CACTUS: BLACK DAWN (2016)
1) Black Dawn; 2) Mama Bring It Home; 3) Dynamite; 4) Juggernaut; 5) Headed For A Fall; 6) You Need Love; 7) The Last Goodbye; 8) Walk A Mile; 9) Another Way Or Another; 10) C-70 Blues.
SET FIRE TO THE NIGHT! BRING ON THE BLACK DAWN! SET FIRE TO THE NIGHT! BRING ON THE BLACK DAWN! Hmm, not a bad message for the last day of 2016. The song's lyrical message mostly has to do with ecology, but it does not take a great leap of imagination to give it an overall apocalyptic interpretation — ecology, economy, politics, whatever — and with that opening near-thrash metal riff, this is one heck of an apocalyptic tune, far heavier than anything on Cactus V or, for that matter, pretty much anything this band ever put out in its prime. Simple, brutal, tense, melodic, and catchy, it's, like, the perfect song to summarize 2016, and the only question is: how come it had to take a band like Cactus, of all people, to bring it out?
Particularly since I was hasty enough to thank this new line-up for staying away from the studio — which they did for ten years, but the temptation to say something new must have been too hard, and here they are again, with the notable exclusion of Tim Bogert, still present on two of the tracks but essentially replaced by new bass player Pete Bremy, who currently performs the honors for both the resuscitated Cactus and Vanilla Fudge. In situations like these, you can never really guess the odds, but there is always a higher-than-zero chance that the musical revenant will hit upon something vital, and Black Dawn at least makes sure to correct certain mistakes that were committed with their previous comeback effort. Namely, it is shorter, which always helps with one-trick ponies like Cactus; it is heavier, which always helps with brawny bastards like Cactus; and it is more riff-centered, which always helps with anybody in the hard rock business.
That still does not make it any sort of masterpiece, but throw in some fast tempos (the band really sounds on a high energy kick here) to complete the picture and somehow, defying all expectations, this 21st century Cactus ends up with their best studio album ever — in forty-six years, that is. No other track has the same level of intensity as ʽBlack Dawnʼ, probably the first and last Cactus song that I might actually be tempted to take seriously, but ʽHeaded For A Fallʼ is a fast-going, fun-loving romp, sewing on a poppier chorus to a riff that feels like a variation on AC/DC's ʽWhole Lotta Rosieʼ; ʽYou Need Loveʼ honors the legacy of Rod Stewart's ʽYou're My Girlʼ, with similar stuttering exciting interplay between the guitars and the drums; and ʽMama Bring It On Homeʼ is an exercise in copping the precision and tightness of the New Wave of Heavy Metal-era bands like Judas Priest, though McCarty still cannot resist the temptation of drowning everything in excessive thick distortion.
The slower, bluesier tracks are predictably less impressive, although ʽC-70 Bluesʼ is probably as close as they come to recapturing the absurdly feedback-choked sonic textures of their early slow blues — completely impossible to distinguish, in fact, from the way they used to play in 1970, right down to the most minute details of the drum patterns. The acoustic guitars are brought out only once (ʽAnother Way Or Anotherʼ) as an element of contrast to the aggressive wah-wah guitar; and the album's other instrumental piece, ʽThe Last Goodbyeʼ, is a life-threatening blues jam that takes the Beatles' ʽI Want Youʼ as a reference model, with similar doom-laden descending chord sequences and hell-borne hystrionic solos on top — slow, but still fun.
All in all, Black Dawn seems to succeed where its predecessor failed; and it does so, first and foremost, because Cactus have no high standards to match — where something like Black Sabbath's 13 sounds like such a tremendous disappointment because it aims at bringing back the magic of 1970 and fails, Cactus had no «magic» to begin with, and it is far easier for them not only to bring back the atmosphwere of their 1970, but even to top it, provided they show some discipline and capitalize on their strongest points. And they do. And, as the title track shows, they clearly have a bone to pick with society today, and it helps, too: at least in the studio, they never really used to sound as pissed off as they do on some of the tracks here. Not that this signals a rebirth for classic hard rock or anything (I've long given up believing in «rebirths» anyway), but it is a good hard rock record, the likes of which in 2016 you can only encounter among living fossils like these. Thumbs up.