Here are three things I know about Chantel McGregor. First, she won a couple of British Blues Awards back in 2013. Second, she's not really a blues artist. And third – that’s fine.
It’s fine, because in the course of over an hour on Bury’d Alive (so titled because this live album was recorded in Bury St. Edmunds - ouch!), McGregor and her show mark out their real territory with total conviction. Some hard rocking, some progginess, and some hints of jam band – these are the essential ingredients they whip together to good effect.
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The hard rocking is evident from the start, as the opening ‘Take The Power’ features a winding guitar riff, leading into a staccato rhythm and punchy vocal on the verses, a first bout of guitar and bass harmonising, and a sweeping chorus amid ringing guitar chords, before McGregor gets into a brooding, semi-distorted solo. There’s an even more aggressive, crunching riff on the following ‘Killing Time’, underpinned by driving bass and rock solid drums, en route to a stuttering bridge.
There’s lots of tension too, for example in ‘Caught Out’, with its buzzing riff and choppy drums giving way to surging guitar and bass over a steady rhythm. McGregor tops that one off with a flickering, wah-wah solo ahead of a sprint to the finishing line. And the closing ‘Freefalling’ is another gutsy, energetic affair, with its appropriately twisting and plunging riff, strident chorus, and yet more surging guitar chords and bubbling bass.
These tracks do a good job of maintaining the momentum and energy levels, with ‘Caught Out’ in particular carrying echoes for me of latter day guitar-driven Rush, circa Vapor Trails perhaps. But McGregor is even more effective when she gets into more expansive realms.
‘Like No Other’ lays down a marker for this more reflective sound, with its delicate guitar opening counterpointed by patient bass notes, before taking off into heavier realms, with an ascending bass line from Colin Sutton, over subtle guitar textures from McGregor, reinforcing its appeal. But they really hit paydirt with the excellent ‘Eternal Dream’, its mellow strummed and picked opening recalling Wishbone Ash for this old git, while McGregor’s singing is clear, pure and feminine, underlining the song’s distinctiveness. It’s suspenseful and dream-like, and indeed borderline ethereal as it approaches the halfway mark of its nine minutes and sets off on a sparkling instrumental exploration.
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Is that the standout track on the album? Difficult to say, what with similar treats being offered up by ‘Inconsolable’, a cover of a song by American folk-rocker Jonatha Brooke with a shimmering, acoustic sounding opening, and some lovely, lilting vocals from McGregor. Sutton weighs in with dipping and darting bass notes over sparse, controlled drums from Thom Gardner, before McGregor gets into some dynamic, sustain-heavy guitar work, and they play around with various themes, but without descending into the dreaded aimless noodling. This is prog with a sense of purpose.
And one can’t ignore ‘April’ either, a previously unreleased instrumental heralded by weeping guitar notes over rumbling drums and tinkling cymbals, leading into piercing guitar lines over a click-clack rhythm and pulsing bass and then picking up pace as they apparently jump off into jam band territory, the three of them bouncing off each other beautifully, even if its does get a bit manic towards the end.
I could go on, as there are other pleasures to be appreciated on Bury’d Alive – and with the crystal clear production and mixing by Wayne Proctor, giving the instrumentation well-nigh perfect space and balance, you won’t have to listen too hard to catch them.
Eschewing keyboards, Chantel McGregor and co deliver a singular style of guitar-led proggish rock that’s imaginative but focused. Methinks the lady knows very much what she’s doing, and she stands apart doing it. There’s a Scottish poet who wrote about the need “To be yersel’ and mak’ that worth bein’”. With Bury’d Alive, Chantel McGregor tries to live up to that maxim.
Bury'd Alive is out now. For details of Chantel McGregor's tour dates, look here.