CKY Rises with ‘The Phoenix’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

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Full disclosure: CKY is the most formative band of my youth and of my musical tastes as they stand today. When I stumbled across them as a 14-year-old, they were unlike any band I had ever heard before. Their riffs were complex and catchy and I wanted nothing less from my music from that point forward. Beyond that, the individual musical tastes of the members of CKY opened up my own personal tastes, from the rock and roll behemoth that is Clutch to death metal like Malevolent Creation.

Much of CKY’s sound was based on guitarist/vocalist Deron Miller. Throughout previous pre-CKY bands and through the bands tenure, Miller’s riffs were massive, and all done with his signature guitar tone driven by an octave pedal. Other guitarist, Chad Ginsburg, brought the energy to the bands live performances, synths and lead guitars on the album and produced the records. Drummer Jess Margera held down the fort behind the drum kit and the bassist position was somewhat of a revolving door.

The past 5-plus years has been rough terrain for a CKY fan. Various bits of strife within the band led Miller to exit the band to start his own version of CKY, 96 Bitter Beings, and Ginsburg, Margera and former bassist Matt Deis keeping the CKY and moving forward as a three-piece. With its primary songwriter, guitarist and vocalist gone, CKY was forced to dig deep and re-establish themselves. And boy, did they.

The re-established three-piece wastes no time addressing the elephant in the room with the thundering opener “Replaceable.” Starting with the screeching shriek of a phoenix, the album kicks in with a big fat classic CKY riff, thick bass from Deis, and disco beats from Margera. It’s pretty clear this has been something that has been stewing for a while, with Ginsberg proclaiming that he’s “born to be a genius, the meanest I’ve ever been” before lashing into one of the catchier choruses on the album and the lyrics “you need attention, you’re replaceable.” It’s one of many songs that has really interesting melodic breakdowns and the first real sign that this version of CKY is a different beast altogether.

Perhaps the biggest differentiation in this three-piece iteration of the band is their approach to songwriting. CKY has always been a band that has been predominantly focused and centered around the guitar riff. While there are certainly some very good riffs on this album, this version of CKY is much more interested in creating grooves and melodies. A perfect example of a song that could have never existed with the old guard is the track “Unknown Enemy.” The song is almost entirely driven by drums and bass with Deis in particular standing out with some of the better bass tone you’ll hear on any album this year. It’s a deliciously poppy song that gets even better with its totally funky wah-driven interlude that sounds like it was stripped directly from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories album and is decidedly dancey. In fact, the general neck-bobbing, funky, danciness is present in several spots on the album like on the track “The Other Ones.”

Move forward through the album and you will find even more impressive traits. The best track of the album is “Head for a Breakdown,” a ballad that opens with a 12-string guitar before giving way to synths, a heavy bass line, and processed guitar leads. Headed into this album, one of the biggest question marks was how Ginsburg would operate as a lead vocalist, having only served as lead on his fantastic solo album from a couple years ago, Rock and Roll Alibis. There are moments on the album where the vocals are a bit raw or Ginsburg sounds a little too rock and roll rough, letting words linger too long. Any doubt can absolutely be erased, however, with “Head for a Breakdown.” Ginsburg’s vocals are strong and powerful over a soaring, catchy chorus that would fit in and exceed anything on the radio right now. It’s the most melodic thing that CKY has ever done, becoming downright beautiful with its lead melodies and guitar solo backed with string sounds.

The album is a quick-hitter with only 8 tracks, none of them bad. There are certainly tracks that sound like older CKY, like the first released song “Days of Self Destruction” or the heaviest track on the album “Wiping Off the Dead.” It’s not surprising that CKY was able to recreate that sound, going so far as to use some of the same gear as previous album Volume One and implementing the classic octave pedal on many guitars. It is where this band deviates, however, that really shows how good this album is. Ginsburg is a bit weak vocally at times, and the album may be just the teensiest bit frontloaded. But this is a new, energetic CKY. It takes a few listens to take away pre-conceived notions, but once that is clear, what is left is a collection of groovy, catchy, straight-forward rock and roll. Effects heavy leads, vocal harmonies, upbeat drums, synth-led interludes, dancing disco drum beats all combine to create a sound that is diverse as it is unique. CKY was faced with the challenge of completely changing direction as a band and in the process, has soared.

Don’t miss our interview with Matt Deis.

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