CACTUS – Tightrope (2021)

Still ‘ot ‘n’ sweaty, ‘eavy rhythm-and-blues veterans balance their graceful act and walk into sunset with a smile.

Prickly like the Sonoran Desert vegetation and charged like Battersea Power Station back in the day, as this album’s artwork suggests, the classic American ensemble manage to stay true to their original principles and to keep on building upon what was started five decades ago. The veterans’ seventh record is bound to be lucky – only the quintet don’t leave their music to chance. By taking songwriting to a whole new level, the collective came up with one of the group’s strongest offerings – full of twists and turns and loose just enough to not let the slack get in the way of the titular tightness. More so, there’s enough teasers and inner links for Tightrope to hint at conceptuality – something the band have never been known for – which means there’s a lot of creative space for further growth.

It also means variety that makes the album hour-long duration feel like a few fleeting moments, despite the psychedelic presence of small, quasi-symphonic epic Suite 1 And 2: Everlong, All The Madmen where the second, anthemic part isn’t a Bowie cut – but then, the cymbals-ushered, infectious shuffle of All Shook Up isn’t an Elvis cover. Yet Papa Was A Rolling Stone is a fresh take on THE TEMPTATIONS’ perennial on which CACTUS’ current guitarist Paul Warren played, aged 18, to add his voice to it now and reprise his wah-wah-enhanced parts with 50 years of experience spicing up the familiar licks – sharp and punchy here. From the title track’s rough ‘n’ throbbing riff onward, the team show deliberate lack of mercy: they don’t allow the listener to breathe, when Warren’s six strings are bolstered with Jim Caputo’s bass and their weave is locked into the founding member Carmine Appice‘s drums before Jimmy Kunes’ vocals shatter the ether and the wail of Randy Pratt‘s harmonica smooths the piece’s edges.

They shine in the polished despair of Poison In Paradise that emphasizes the ensemble’s bluesy balladry, in the ever-shifting belligerence of Preaching Woman Man Blues and in the tribal sway of Shake That Thing whose handclaps and refrains should entrance entire arenas, especially with a bottom-end rumble at the fore. But while the harp-stricken, mighty, high-octane grooves of Third Time Gone and Elevation hark back to the band’s beginnings, the irresistibly Primitive Touch will connect the past and the future via funky dance, and Headed For A Fall – which sees the group’s first guitarist Jim McCarty and bassist Pete Bremy, Appice’s colleague in VANILLA FUDGE, join the ranks – loops a melodic garotte through a frantic jive. Once out of the danger, the AOR-ish Wear It Out brings the album to a close by telling everyone what to do with it, the finale rendered poignant as the featured singer, Phil Naro, sadly passed away a month after Tightrope had hit the shelves.

The tragedy notwithstanding, this is an ultimate triumph for the veterans.

Originally published: DME – LET IT ROCK

Tightrope Book Cover Tightrope
Hard Rock
Purple Pyramid Records

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