Guitar and vocal powerhouse Philip Sayce calls his new album Steamroller, and that’s absolutely perfect.
From the moment the title cut’s colossal riff kick-starts the disc until the wall of feedback that finishes the soaring instrumental “Aberystwyth” concludes the set list, Sayce’s fourth release for Provogue Records is a rock ‘n’ blues joyride — a heavyweight sonic and emotional juggernaut fueled by Sayce’s unstoppable talent.
“This is the most unfiltered album I’ve done,” says the Toronto native. “The only goals were to be completely honest in every moment of writing and recording, so we could get all of the emotional intensity of these songs into the tracks.”
Mission accoplished. Steamroller draws on an era when rockers were larger than life and guitars sounded bigger than Godzilla — when bands wrote anthemic songs with hooks that rang out like the Hammer of the Gods. But there’s a modern energy and perspective at play in Sayce’s arrangements and lyrics, too, which keeps Steamroller from gathering even a spec of dust.
“The themes of this album are power, strength, belief, self-confidence, re-birth, inspiration and the dedication to break barriers,” Sayce declares. To backlight those themes with the crackling fires of conviction, Sayce and his band cut the disc live in Nashville’s Chatham County Sound studio with Grammy nominated producer Dave Cobb (Jamey Johnson, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell) behind the board. The proof of Sayce’s musical faith is in the tracks. “Steamroller” and “The Bull” capture a raging lust for life. Both songs are guitar propelled sonic carnival rides that double as relentless hymns to the pursuit of dreams and goals.
In “The Bull,” Sayce’s high-wire vocal performance hurdles a hoof-pounding rhythm toward a solo that channels his six-string heroes Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Healey, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton all at once, climaxing in a shuddering wave of dramatic wah-wah.
Sayce’s absolutely possessed performance of “Black Train” ups the ante within its incendiary guitar break, splattering a raw expressionist portrait of twisted desire in thirty-second notes all over the mix. Then there’s the witch’s tale “A Mystic” driven by brooding chords and decorated by Sayce’s ornate bends and trills. Add in his eerie, chanted vocal turn and the tune sounds like a great lost gem from the original Black Sabbath’s catalog.
But Steamroller isn’t just a roller coaster of sound, sex and sinew. “Marigold” is a shimmering ballad inspired by Sayce’s wife — a story of strength found in true love with a vocal performance that’s pure nectar. The equally smitten “Beautiful” brims with funky vibes, channeling the heyday of Stevie Wonder in Sayce’s falsetto and the percolating, syncopated swing of New Orleans’ rhythm kings the Meters in its neo-classic soul architecture.
The album’s finale “Aberystwyth,” named after the Welsh town of Sayce’s birth, is a stunning composite of his influences and his own six-string vocabulary. The song builds on a sweet melodic theme that evolves to a textbook display of virtuosity replete with singing vibrato, daredevil string-bends, high-speed picking and elegantly sustained notes that carry the composition’s heartfelt arc.
“My goal is to try to put as much of myself emotionally and even physically into everything I sing and play,” Sayce says. “That’s something I learned from the great records I heard as a kid to every minute I spent on stage with Jeff Healey, Melissa Etheridge and Uncle Kracker. They really put themselves in the center of their music, and when audiences recognize that, something amazing happens. A whole new level of communication and connection takes place. That’s what I’m always going for.”
Sayce’s parents, who relocated their family to Toronto when he was two, helped put him on that endless quest. “They grew up listening to classic blues-based music made in the British Isles,” he recounts. “Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Mark Knopfler were all heroes around my house, along with Americans like Jimi Hendrix, Ry Cooder and Stevie Ray Vaughan. My dad once told me that Stevie Ray was as good as Clapton, which was a big deal for him to say, because in our house Clapton really was ‘God’.”Vaughan’s untimely death galvanized Sayce’s own musical dedication. “When I heard that he had been killed, something inside me shifted, and I became very serious about music,” he says.
By age 16 Sayce was regularly playing in Toronto clubs, and two years later the Canadian blues guitar virtuoso Jeff Healey took him under wing. “I used to sneak into clubs to hear Jeff play,” Sayce explains. “One night I got invited to jam with him on stage. Jeff picked up a bass and gave me his guitar and we played a couple Cream songs. As we were leaving he invited me to sit in his manager’s car and asked, ‘Hey, wanna join my band? We’ll take you around the world and you’ll learn how to play on big stages.’ ”
For four years Sayce toured internationally with Healey, playing on the albums Get Me Some and Live At Montreux, and planting the seeds for his own strong European following. Sayce then moved to Los Angeles to pursue his own musical goals.
His next stop was Uncle Kracker’s band while the former Kid Rock DJ was riding high on a top 10 hit with the Dobie Gray classic “Drift Away” and the album No Stranger to Shame, which features Sayce’s blasting guitar. Then came an apprenticeship with Melissa Etheridge that included four albums and several concert DVD’s. In Sayce’s unbridled delivery, the rock icon found a match for her own indomitable intensity. And in Etheridge, he found a second mentor. “She taught me about having absolute confidence on stage and rocking out with everything you’ve got every time you play,” Sayce says. “That really resonated with me.”
But inevitably this truly exceptional singer and six-stringer had to follow his own muse. His debut album Peace Machine was recorded with Etheridge bandmates Kenny Aronoff on drums and Mark Browne on bass and released by Provogue in 2009. Next came 2010’s Innerevolution, where Sayce focused on bringing his songwriting to maturity. And in early 2011 he delivered Ruby Electric. Half was recorded in the studio with Cobb and half was cut live in Europe while opening for the legendary Deep Purple. Fitting for that disc’s charging, spirited performances, the concert tracks were mixed by Jimi Hendrix’s personal engineer Eddie Kramer.
“Those albums chronicled my growth as a songwriter and performer,” Sayce explains, “and now Steamroller channels all of that into trying to be as immediate and direct as possible. Much of Steamroller sounds like its just about rocking, because of the high energy level, but it’s way deeper than that. It’s about being real and getting in touch with your own self-power, and celebrating life. “Hopefully,” he relates, “those ideas will resonate with other people through the music the way they did with me — and maybe even inspire them, too.”