Album Review: “Black Rose: A Rock Legend” — Thin Lizzy (1979)

One of the most endearing elements of Thin Lizzy’s legacy is that you could never quite pigeonhole them with a single sound. They ran the gamut from their early folk-rock to dalliances in R&B, FM radio rock, soulful balladry, near metal intensity, and nearly everywhere between all points in their career. The common thread woven through this fabric was band stalwart, songwriter, and vocalist/bassist Phil Lynott. whose vocal stylings and poetic songwriting remained a hallmark of a band which never quite got the footing they deserved in North America, aside for two radio hits that emerged off of the same LP in 1976 (the classic Jailbreak, which spawned the title track and inescapable “The Boys Are Back In Town”).

The band’s self-congratulatory-titled 1979 release Black Rose: A Rock Legend, is hailed as one of the band’s all-time best albums, sometimes referred to as the band’s “last great album”. Pushing hyperbole off the table for a moment, what strikes me most about this release is how muscular the production is, the fullness of the sound, almost oppressively dense. It lends an epic air of majestic power to the album, one which producer Tony Visconti used to great effect in the previous studio release Bad Reputation and is increased dramatically here.

Part of the bombastic feel can be attributed to Lynott’s strong collection of songs, which are showing distinct influences from the New Wave/Power Pop movements of the day. This is a hard rock album that demonstrates the band’s determination to evolve their sound past basic FM rock into something musically broader. Also benefiting the record was the full time participation of legendary blues/rock guitarist Gary Moore, who had worked with the band in small spurts earlier but never for an entire album. Moore’s masterful fretwork, along with that of classic longtime Lizzy co-lead guitarist Scott Gorham, lends an indelible mark of virtuosity to Black Rose: A Rock Legend. All these elements are anchored by Lynott’s steady vocals and evocative, slice-of-life lyrics that can recall anything from grandiose Irish mythology to menacing street corner toughs. The man simply knew how to tell a story better than most in rock music.

Absolutely thundering drums open the album on “Do Anything You Want To”, Lynott’s hook-filled ode to self-empowerment. Thin Lizzy’s patented dual-lead licks are placed in full effect here by Moore and Gorham, almost as a cursory nod to the band’s more traditional sound. This a strong album opener but it almost sounds perfunctory, as if to placate those looking for a basic Lizzy song to cover all bases. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Things get more fun with “Toughest Street In Town”, a wickedly uptempo piece of Power Pop. Retaining Lizzy’s distorted power chord riffage, it manages that sweet combo of catchy melodies, strong harmonies, and amped-up rock backbone. “S&M” is a bit ridiculous, a foray into percussive-driven funk mode. Musically it’s quite interesting, but the lyrically it falls distinctly into banal territory.

Things smack back into place with the killer “Waiting For An Alibi”, the album’s first single. A fast rocker, it’s a tad more subdued than “Toughest Street In Town” but it’s more assured, while retaining that song’s pop undertones and rock crunch. Lynott gives a great vocal performance here, his speak-sing mannerisms put to great effect, while Moore delivers one of his most blistering solos to date.

The exemplary “Sarah” reminds me of earlier Lizzy, as it’s a mellower but cheerful number, slower, steady and restrained but beautifully rendered and lushly produced. Moore’s guitar work is clean and shimmering, with a wonderfully performed solo that aptly demonstrates his musicality. The song, an ode to Lynott’s newborn daughter, has an almost Steely Dan meets Toto feel (moreso the former than the latter), but it’s a superior pop song that’s almost impossible not to love. Look out for future Top 40 fixture Huey Lewis showing up on this track playing the harmonica.

“Got To Give It Up” brings the album back to dark, sinister territory. A harrowing song dealing with the nightmares of addiction, it remains chillingly prophetic given Lynott’s death via overdose nearly six years after the album’s release. It’s a solid album track, but one of the lesser ones. “Get Out Of Here” returns the band to the pop-hard rock realm they explored with “Alibi” and “Toughest Street”. Another quality uptempo track, it explodes with Lynott venemously spitting out against end-of-relationship rage.

“With Love” is a richly textured midtempo track, with an acoustic guitar foundation around which Moore and Gorham layer strong guitar licks, enhancing Lynott’s minor-key lament on desire and regret. It’s a fine song, and segues into the album’s showcase track and final song, “Róisín Dubh (Black Rose): A Rock Legend”, the masterful 7-minute epic to their home country. The song is a Thin Lizzy classic and staple of their live-set, a celebration of Ireland, its myths, legends, and history.”Róisín Dubh” is the ultimate culmination of the work between Lynott and Moore, the former’s lyrics and vocals combined with the latter’s masterful guitarwork. Composed of multiple pieces, including traditional Irish arrangements, it weaves a tale that name-checks legendary Irish warriors and queens, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Van Morrison, the famines, Oscar Wilde, and even their first hit “Whiskey In The Jar”. It also opens up an insane instrumental portion with bravura soloing from Moore and Gorham. An epic number, this is a wicked closer to a great album.

It’s a shame that most North American audiences haven’t been exposed to or couldn’t be bothered with the vast majority of Thin Lizzy’s catalog. Trust me, I love the Jailbreak album as much as (and probably more than) the next guy, but it only scratches the surface of what Lizzy had to offer. Thin Lizzy may not have ever hit the highs of Black Rose: A Rock Legend again in their recording career; before Lynott’s death in 1986, they released  three more studio LPs and a live album, all of them worthwhile in some capacity, but Black Rose remained a high watermark in their catalog. Much like the band itself, guitarist Gary Moore (who left after this album) never gained a large following in North America, save for his album Still Got The Blues, which went Gold in the US in the 90s. Still, a more endearing testament to Lynott, Moore, and Thin Lizzy than Black Rose: A Rock Legend could scarcely be imagined.

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