Review by Tom Mead
Sweden’s Spiritual Beggars, the brainchild of Arch Enemy and ex-Carcass guitarist Michael Amott, is a rare example of a side-project/supergroup that has arguably become as much of a commitment for its members as their respective “day jobs” are. Together for over 20 years now, albeit with a few lineup changes along the way (most notably behind the microphone), they’ve become one of the most respected bands of the Stoner/Retro 70s rock paradigm, despite (or perhaps because of) their members’ extreme metal backgrounds. Sunrise to Sundown is Spiritual Beggars’ ninth album (and third with current singer Apollo Papathanasio, formerly of Firewind) and, while its overall sound and mood will not be to everyone’s tastes, there is much to applaud here.
The band’s previous album, 2013’s Earth Blues, drew strong comparisons with Deep Purple due to the dominant presence of Per Wilberg’s organ playing. Sunrise to Sundown largely follows a similar blueprint, albeit with a few more psychedelic/early prog elements; it sounds like they’ve been listening to Uriah Heap, The Doors and maybe even The Grateful Dead. All the band members sound like they’re on board with this sound, and the tight interplay throughout the album leads to some positive results. The opening title track features a strong driving, old school riff, with an assured, powerful vocal performance from Papathanasio. Hard Road and Still Hunter are both catchy, but heavy, numbers where Amott and Wilberg’s guitar and organ intertwine effectively and efficiently, complemented by the tight rhythm section of bassist Sharlee D’Angelo and drummer Ludwig Witt. This is an album that is clearly the work of seasoned professionals.
The two big highlights of the album though are Dark Light Child (wisely chosen to be the lead single) and Southern Star (the emotional closing track). Dark Light Child is a proper “old school” Spiritual Beggars track, with a screeching opening guitar solo, a strong chorus, and a pummelling, spiralling guitar riff. Moreover, the organ on this track is used more for atmospheric purposes, rather than as a lead instrument; the dominance of keyboards throughout the album won’t be to all fans’ tastes, so this track in particular provides a welcome respite in that respect. Conversely, Southern Star is perhaps the most psychedelic track on the album. This is a mellow, yet powerful number with a slow, groovy riff and effective use of piano that ends the album on an emotive high; it recalls 60s bands such as The Kinks or Small Faces, though significantly louder!
There are however several points of criticism here, with at least 2 or 3 tracks that are just filler. Lonely Freedom and You’ve Been Fooled aren’t bad per se (the former has a nice bluesy feel to it) but neither are that memorable. The definite low point is I Turn to Stone, which is too slow, dreary and just plain weird; I’ve no idea what they were thinking when they wrote the George of the Jungle/St. Anger dustbin lid drum pattern. Overall though, while the level of songwriting and musical performance is of a more-or-less high level throughout the album, the whole thing does feel fairly derivative. There are, of course, worse bands to sound like than Deep Purple or Uriah Heap, but it’s a shame that a group of musicians as talented as Spiritual Beggars have resorted to such unoriginal mimicry (check out Michael Amott’s Ritchie Blackmore impersonation on What Doesn’t Kill You for starters…). Moreover, while they’ve gotten the balance between organ and everything else right in places, Per Wilberg is much too high in the mix on several tracks (such as Diamond Under Pressure and What Doesn’t Kill You), the effect being a much softer sound than what many fans would be comfortable with.
To conclude, this is not a bad album, and the highlights mentioned above are particularly noteworthy slabs of stoner/psychedelic metal. But Spiritual Beggars have done much better in the past. Ultimately, Sunrise to Sundown lacks consistency with many derivative and unimaginative elements. This is not essential listening and I would not recommend it as a good starting point for new fans.