The memory and image of Phil Lynott exert a daunting moral and creative force, which leaves Black Star Riders, whose members have been touring as Thin Lizzy for the past three years, dancing on the head of a pin. When Ricky Warwick sings ‘I walk a murder mile in dead man’s shoes’, during this album’s title song, it’s a line fraught with ulterior meaning.
The band have decided not to use the Lizzy name “out of respect to Phil Lynott and the legacy he created,” says guitarist Scott Gorham. With Brian Downey and Darren Wharton electing not to take part despite their presence in the existing Thin Lizzy touring line-up, Gorham is the only link to the original band here.
Damon Johnson, Marco Mendoza and Jimmy DeGrasso have long CVs as safe pairs of hired hands, while Ricky Warwick’s role as an ersatz Lynott is perhaps the most ambiguous of all, and the one that it’s easiest to feel empathetic towards. He’s a talented and wholehearted musician for whom there are huge reserves of goodwill, but it’s impossible to know to what degree his own personality has been compromised by the need to adopt Lynott’s styling, and by the permanent exposure to his songs.
To further blur the lines, Thin Lizzy continue to tour on a smaller scale; they played with Kiss and Mötley Crüe in Australia in March, and Black Star Riders are planning some festival shows this summer. In addition, this new album was written while the band were touring as Thin Lizzy and before the Black Star Riders moniker was confirmed. “Even when I heard the band decided to change their name, my interest in signing them did not waver for one second,” says Nuclear Blast’s Monte Conner.
All of which might seem like a long set-up for an album review. But it is relevant, because All Hell Breaks Loose is probably the closest to a Thin Lizzy record it’s possible to get without the presence of Phil himself. In moments like Warwick’s ad-libbed “Alright, Scotty” before the guitar break on the title song, it is almost ghostly. Such motifs ring throughout the album, and consistently return the listener to the central question of the band’s identity. If the answer to it is uncertain, there is at least the consolation of its quality: there are songs here that would slip on to a Thin Lizzy album with a nudge and wink and stand shoulder to shoulder with almost anything there.
It’s worth considering for a moment why Phil Lynott is revered in the way he is, because it goes beyond his appealing roguishness and indelible, be-leathered image. It dives into the deep streak of melancholy both he and his songs possessed. Lynott summoned a romance around himself, but there was an enduring sadness too. As James Hetfield said of him in 2011: “The struggles that he wrote about, with drugs, drink, ethnicity, all of those things, they almost speak louder now.”
Warwick and Gorham have assimilated some of those grace notes without becoming mawkish. Kingdom Of The Lost is the first of several songs with a Celtic overtone (albeit in this case with a somewhat Spinal Tap intro), its story of Irish exile neatly sketched with the promise of ‘a land of milk and honey, with whiskey by the pail’; Kissing The Ground opens with the strong, progressive riff and percussive vocal of a Bad Reputation or Killer On The Loose; Bound For Glory is introduced with the twin-guitar style made so famous by Gorham and Brian Robertson. These are echoes rather than imitations, and they quickly establish the strengths of Black Star Riders.
Another of Lynott’s tropes was to infuse elements of his past with a rosy glow, The Boys Are Back In Town being its most famous example. Warwick does the same thing very nicely in Someday Salvation: ‘Where did all the love go, in those worn-out photographs?’ is the kind of economical but illuminating phrase that any songwriter would be pleased to have come up with. How much of this is meant, how much is unconscious and how much a coincidence of background can only be guessed at.
But there are less referential moments, too. Hoodoo Voodoo and Before The War are muscular hard rock tunes of the sort Warwick made a trademark when he was fronting The Almighty, and Scott Gorham gets to show off some slick guitar chops on the closing Blues Ain’t Bad.
Carefully sold as an ‘evolution in the Thin Lizzy story’, All Hell Breaks Loose ultimately has enough love and care behind its creation to rebut accusations of cynicism. It’s passionately played, and in Ricky Warwick it has its genuine heartbeat. It might never escape the long shadows of the past, but it deserves a fair hearing.