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Niche – ‘Heading East’

nicheheading east

An argument can be made that metal as a whole has reached the oversaturation point – too many bands, too many albums, quality playing second fiddle to quantity, etc. Within the genre, that same argument applies to the 1970s as a musical reference point. Plenty of bands have been aping Sabbath since the beginning, but 45 years later the “copy of a copy of a copy” shtick is wearing thin.

Others successfully moved on to ripping off lesser-known (but just as good) acts like Wishbone Ash and Thin Lizzy, which I heartily endorsed; that is, until every backpatched and battle-vested band with two guitarists started name-dropping without backing it up with good songs.

What so many retro/trad/throwback/whatever acts seem to forget is those ’70s bands are great because they wrote songs. Riffs matter, musical ability matters, but they don’t mean shit if you can’t cobble them together in a meaningful way. (Nazareth’s “Hair Of The Dog” is exempt from this criteria; it has exactly one riff, two power chords and repeats the chorus a million times but I could hear it every day for the rest of my life and never get sick of it.)

Savannah, Georgia’s Niche gets it. Sure, they have the prerequisite bellbottom dual-guitar harmonies and vaguely Pink Floyd-ish psychedelic flourishes, but they also have what really counts: strong songwriting chops. Phillip Cope must agree; not only did the Kylesa mastermind produce their third and newest LP, Heading East, but he also released it through his band’s own label [The title of the album may be a reference to the great and underrated 70’s hard rock outfit Head East, who contributed this song to the Dazed and Confused soundtrack-Ed.] .

Niche doesn’t limit their classic rock influences to just the heavy hitters, either. The vocal melodies and harmonies throughout tracks like “Exiled To Islands” and “On Down The Line” recall the Hollies, James Gang and even Steely Dan. The songs also benefit from layers of synths thanks to Corey Barhorst (Black Tusk, ex-Kylesa). On the 8+ minute “When I’m Gone,” each instrument plays an equally important part in keeping the song buoyant. When the guitar interplay might be going a bit too long, the synths break in while the rhythm section does its own Bonham/Jones back-and-forth.

“On Down The Line” really lets Barhorst shine, with the second half of the song awash in Uriah Heep and Atomic Rooster synth and Hammond organ. It’s the perfect transition to “Sweet Dear Anne”, a low key ballad that actually does justice to pre-Nightlife Thin Lizzy. The vocal melody is infectious and memorable, and nary a guitar note is out of place. Some bands benefit from sounding like they could collapse in on themselves at any given moment; Niche works at the opposite end of that spectrum. Forty years ago they’d be touring arenas, but let’s appreciate that we have them right now.

—Chris Rowella

Heading East is out via Retro Futurist. Follow Niche on Facebook.

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