It’s tempting, upon first impression, to write off the fiery grit of Erick Serna’s blues guitar stylings as simply another page from a dog-eared book, but there is something about The Grip, the debut effort from Serna (The Dear Hunter) and his super-tight backing band, The Killing Floor, that makes doing so impossible.
Blues rock and blues guitar are a lot like beer: the core ingredients have remained relatively static for ages. That’s because someone got that shit right the first time.
The Grip is, at points, reminiscent of classic Led Zeppelin; pentatonic pyrotechnics and swamped-out riffs abound. With a big assist from The Killing Floor, Serna proves to be more than up to the task of demonstrating what it is we all love so much about blues guitar to begin with. His slide-heavy and whiskey drenched sound is like a brutishly powerful sports car negotiating a serpentine mountain roadway: it seems as though every nudge of the pedal, every tilt of the wheel, will send car and driver careening off a cliff to certain fiery doom, but god damn it if that isn’t half the fun. The suggestion of impending calamity is a powerful force indeed, and one which Serna wields with aplomb on The Grip. His playing is as unhinged and immediate as a late night encounter with a dangerous lunatic—perilous, but well worth the price of admission for the thrill factor alone.
It is worth noting that Serna contributes vocals, guitar, bass and keys on The Grip, with Cliff Sarcona (As Tall As Lions), the only player on the record who isn’t a former member of the musician carousel that is The Dear Hunter—with seven ex-members in six years of life, adding raucous drums on three tracks. Sammy Dent (drums, percussion) and Josh Rheault (vocal harmonies), both former TDH bandmates of Serna’s, perform on the record as well, and both shine when called upon.
But the main focus of The Grip, the part which draws the ear, is Serna’s guitar work and dirty, gravel-strewn vocals. Recorded in Rheault’s family barn-come-recording studio, the album sounds like the back country into which it was born: raw and rowdy, bursting with tradition and pride.
The Grip goes from a brief intro right into the title track; a driving and deftly maneuvered blues guitar obstacle course, which certainly hints at the large preponderance of The Dear Hunter alums on the record. It’s indicative of what‘s to come, to a certain degree. Serna manages to recite the well-worn riffs that form the foundations of The Grip with enough individuality to prevent them from sounding canned or cliched. His virtuosity is beyond question, and he manages to avoid sounding like rehashed classic rock or venturing onto the suddenly well trodden folk revival path. Indeed, nothing on The Grip sounds anything other than contemporary, to the record’s great credit.
Closing with the ballad-ish Dear McKenzie, Serna displays a somewhat softer side, and in doing so, provides the thread which truly ties together the record. He succeeds in weaving his frenetic guitar style into the framework of the song without compromising its integrity as a ballad. A proper microcosm of the entire album. The Grip provides nothing new, nor does it come off as too derivative. Just genuine. That’s a virtue, in this case. It is clear Serna understands a fundamental truth about blues guitar: much like beer, they got it right the first time.
Editor's Note: Stay tuned to the deli later this week, when we will offer an EXCLUSIVE download premiere of the track "Hey Sweet Thing," by Erick Serna and The Killing Floor.