To my mind, Californian four-piece The BellRays are a lot like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. They’ve been kicking on for around the same amount of time (The BellRays a year longer, dropping their eponymous debut in 1990); they’ve continued to release cracking albums all throughout their tenure; and they’ve managed to survive as independent acts despite the ups and downs of this scurrilous industry. More importantly, they’ve not compromised in their mission to bring their heavily roots-based music (with healthy lashings of rock ‘n’ roll) to as many as they’ve been able. And their respective fans love them as a result.
While JSBX veer recklessly down the blues highway however, The Bellrays infuse their version of Detroit-via-Riverside, California, rock with down and dirty soul, the powerhouse vocal of frontwoman Lisa Kekaula seeing to that. It’s a sound which is tough and hard, but has the ability to slow and to show a softer side, without losing any of its power. Over the course of 12 records (as well as a couple of Best Ofs), The BellRays have stayed true, and with latest album Black Lightning (released in the US in 2010, but seeing a local release this month), they show their mission is still well on track.
Catching up with Kekaula once more, ahead of a whistle-stop Australian tour this month, I make the initial mistake of wanting to talk about the aforementioned fact they’ve been around for almost a quarter century. “Oh my god, do we have to go there,” she laughs, and quite justifiably. For The BellRays, it’s not about the fact they’ve been in the trenches for so long, it’s about the music that’s kept them there, fiercely independent all the while, although there’s a bit of tongue-in-cheek about that. “Yeah, we’re the poster children for DIY,” Kekaula laughs again, adding, “poster children that nobody’s seen the poster of.”
Despite the jibe, The BellRays have never aspired to mainstream success – if they had, they’d have radically changed their music long ago. As Kekaula says, it’s been hard work, but the fact they’re able to travel as far afield as Australia makes it all worth while, and so there’s plenty of life left in the band yet, as Black Lightning illustrates beyond doubt.
Opening with the razor-sharp, hard thumping title track, the record burns through 10 tracks with barely a pause for breath, the sonic interplay between guitarist Bob Venom, bassist Justin Andres and drummer Stefan Litrownik dragging in elements of punk and Detroit garage rock (a la MC5), a force five hurricane of thrashing, writhing sound. You think that’s the business though, you then get assaulted by Kekaula’s voice – howling tempests would struggle to be heard over this, the pure soul that seeps through an elixir to soothe even the most savage beast.
As well, the record dips into more-soul-than-rock territory with the slower ‘Sun Comes Down’ and also blue-eyed soul courtesy of closer ‘The Way’. In between though, it’s all about the riffage and the infusion of said soul with rock, the epitome of what the band has been doing these decades past. “Absolutely,” Kekaula enthuses. “I understand that conundrum of why everybody doesn’t love it… it should be everywhere, everybody should know about the rock and soul.
“And it actually is everywhere, it’s just polished and has been turned into something else. But it’s a very rough diamond, people who understand it will always be very grateful that they were able to experience it.” Listening to Black Lightning is indeed an experience – I’ve not been able to put it on yet without completely stopping what I’m doing in order to listen properly. Background music it certainly ain’t.
Something else it isn’t, is new, at least not for the band, the record having been released in the States in November 2010. As such, even though it’s only being released here in Australia this month, The BellRays are well onto the next installment. “Oh yeah,” she smiles. “We recorded some tracks, we’re working on that right now, and it is pretty weird to be touring the one record, while working on another one.”
“And it’s rockin’, that’s as much as you’re gonna get out of me on that,” she adds. Business as usual then, for The BellRays. Continuing on in their usual fashion, slashing their own path through the ever-growing jungle that is the modern music industry, a band on its own trajectory that we hope never ends – at least not soon.
By Samuel J. Fell
Black Lightning is out locally on May 17 through Sultan Sounds.