Rival Sons: Bringing “Darkfighter” to Light

The world has changed since Rival Sons last released an album in 2019, but the band remains ambitious. The group likes to stretch itself, to move beyond ideas they’ve already explored and tackle new challenges. Darkfighter, out June 2 on Elektra/Low Country Sound, shows this is as true now as it was in the band’s early Before the Fire days.

Speaking with Blues Rock Review last week while on tour in Richmond, Virginia, guitarist Scott Holiday said Darkfighter is a “significant jump forward” for Rival Sons. With every new album, Holiday said the band has further solidified its identity. He described 2016’s Hollow Bones as a “pretty big jump” from 2014’s Great Western Valkyrie, and 2019’s Feral Roots as showing Rival Sons “crystalizing our sound” and beginning to sound “much less like other bands and much more like us.”

“When I listen to this,” Holiday said of Darkfighter, “I feel like this sounds like my band, more than sounds like my influences.”

Making albums is “about moving forward,” Holiday said. “It’s about not just sounding different, but reaching. There’s a lot of striving. There’s a lot of reaching with our records, every time. We do not let each other rest. We will not rest with the writing, we will not rest on the statement, we will not rest on the sonic sound of an album. We’re always really, really reaching. It’s such a blessing. Because I feel like, at any moment, it’d be really easy just to get lazy, and it just hasn’t happened for us.”

Produced by longtime Rival Sons collaborator Dave Cobb, Darkfighter lands Friday as the first part of a two-part project. Its companion album, Lightbringer, is expected out later this year. Writing two albums simultaneously wasn’t the intention—it’s where Holiday, singer Jay Buchanan, drummer Mike Miley and bassist Dave Beste found themselves after creating a bunch of new material during the pandemic that had two distinct vibes and connective tissue tying it all together.

“We just had a lot more time to write,” Holiday said. “We were able to really write a story, even without being totally conscious of the arc. There was an arc, and there was very polarizing, almost like darker and lighter, sides of the music.”

One group of songs “kind of cast a shadow on the last couple years,” he said. These songs reflected a world divided by the coronavirus pandemic and years of political upheaval. But the other group of songs was lighter. Most Rival Sons albums end with a hopeful message or feeling, Holiday said, adding, “I like to think of this band as a band of hope.”

The two groups of songs seemed too long for a single album. “We had more than an hour of music, and I didn’t want to put an hour of music on one record. It’s too big of a bite,” he said. Instead, Holiday and his bandmates took another look at their collection and made a decision. “We have the side that casts a shadow, and the side that kind of casts the light over the shadow. And it made sense to us to have Darkfighter and Lightbringer.”

In press materials for Darkfighter, Holiday is quoted as saying Rival Sons set out “to create a more cinematic body of work.” Rival Sons has always seemed to appreciate visual opportunities to enhance the music, from album artwork to music videos. For Darkfighter, Holiday said the band went “the extra mile” when it came time to make music videos. After passing on directors and ideas that didn’t fit Rival Sons’ vision, they teamed up with director Eli Sokhn to film the music video for “Nobody Wants to Die,” the album’s first single. In an interview with Vintage Rock, Holiday told the magazine he and Buchanan both wanted to create a Quentin Tarantino-style video for the song, an idea that comes across through the blocky lettering announcing the song’s title to the Western heist narrative. The video later filmed for “Bird in the Hand,” directed by Kurt Kubicek, emerged as a prequel to “Nobody Wants to Die.”

The budget was limited for these music videos, so many of the people involved donated their time and expertise. Buchanan’s and Holiday’s own cars were used on the set of “Nobody Wants to Die,” and Holiday’s son was brought in for the main role in the Kubicek-directed “Rapture.”

The playful make-believe seen in the videos stands separate from Darkfighter’s heavy vibes. This started because “Nobody Wants to Die” is a bit of an “outlier” on the album, Holiday told Blues Rock Review, and it was everyone’s first choice for a music video. From there, the focus was on being creative and having fun. “Even when the record is a little heavier, we wanted to still have these things be fun,” he said.

Looking back on the writing and recording process for Darkfighter and the forthcoming Lightbringer, Holiday said the pandemic provided an opportunity to recharge. He recalled thinking before lockdowns began that he could use a couple of years off from the band’s hectic touring and recording schedules to reset and focus on raising his children.

“These touring musicians are actually humans with families and stuff,” Holiday said. “And when we actually satisfy our hearts and the parts of us that are emotional and connected, we’re able to create something, and recharge our batteries, and fire on all cylinders much better, I think. For me, that’s what it was. I went home and was able to put together a record like Darkfighter, because I was recharging my batteries and my artistic mind.”

Holiday and his bandmates are out on the road again now, and they’re excited to be introducing their audiences to new music. So far, Holiday said Darkfighter’s album closer, “Darkside,” has been his favorite to play live, although album opener “Mirrors” and “Guillotine” have also been “very fun.”

“It’s fun to make the songs, and they mean something to us and they’re important, and the statement’s important, the record’s important, and just moving forward is important in bringing something new. But they don’t get to really live the life to the fullest until they get onstage, and in the fans’ heads,” Holiday said. “They just take on a better life, you know? They kind of live and breathe.”

Holiday recognizes Darkfighter is a new step for the band, and that there may be listeners who aren’t yet ready to take that same leap. “This may be too much of a step forward for them. It may not be a step they want to take—that’s okay,” he said. “That’s the beautiful thing about making records. They’re there. You can do it in your own time. I hope—I hope—eventually, you want to follow us down the line.”

For those who are ready to embrace Darkfighter, Holiday said there is “something great coming right after it, too,” in Lightbringer.

“I just hope that everybody enjoys it, and feels the truth in it, and feels our joy and happiness in it,” he said.

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