Nine Below Zero
Nine Below Zero are celebrating forty years since their formation with the release of a brand new studio album entitled 'Avalanche', their first since the 2016 covers album ‘13 Shades of Blue’, and first with all new original material since ‘Never Too Late’ released in 2009. Produced by the whole band, co-produced and engineered by Chris McNally, and mixed and mastered by Wayne Proctor. The striking cover painting of an avalanche of people sliding down a snow covered mountain is by Peter Tingey. This twelve track album clocks in at just over forty five minutes and brings together an eclectic mix of musical styles from Blues, Soul, Funk, Country, Southern Rock and a good smattering of the hard hitting Punk/Mod R&B that they made their name playing. The first thing that strikes one upon initial listen, is how good the album sounds! Everything is clear and crisp, up front and bold but with plenty of depth and room to breathe. Nine Below Zero have been honing their craft for forty years now and that shows to great effect on this album. Still fronted by founding member, the charismatic and formidable vocalist/guitarist Dennis Greaves, along with another original member, the exceptionally gifted and talented harmonica player, Mark Feltham. On this album they are joined by Greaves’s son Sonny on drums, Charlie Austen on lead and backing vocals, Ben Wills on bass, Tom Monks on keyboards, Dave Boraston on trumpet and Chris Rand on saxophone.
Nine Below Zero formed in South London in 1977 by guitarist and lead vocalist Dennis Greaves. For the first two years they were known as “Stan's Blues Band" before changing their name to “Nine Below Zero”, after the Sonny Boy Williamson song, in 1979. Signed to A&M Records they went on to release the seminal ‘Live At The Marquee’ album in 1980 to critical acclaim. A formidable live album, that captures the raw energy and electric atmosphere of the gig perfectly. They released their first studio album ‘Don't Point Your Finger’ in 1981, produced by the legendary Glyn Johns, it reached number 56 on the UK Albums Chart. During this time the band went on to support high profile bands such as The Kinks and The Who. They also made appearances on the Old Grey Whistle Test and the South Bank show. In 1982 they appeared on ‘The Young Ones’ comedy show performing the track ‘Eleven + Eleven’ before releasing the ‘Third Degree’ album, which reached number 38 on the UK Albums Chart.
In 1982 the band split, Dennis Greaves went on to form ‘The Truth’ with Mick Lister. The musical direction moved away from Blues Rock to a more Mod/New Wave sound. They had two top forty hit singles in 1983, appearing on Top Of The Pops several times. In 1990 Nine Below Zero got back together for a sell-out 10th Anniversary Concert at the Town & Country Club in Kentish Town, London. Along with Greaves and Feltham were bassist Gerry McAvoy and drummer Brendan O'Neill (both ex-Rory Gallagher's band). Feltham left again in 1992 only to return in 2001. Harmonica duties during 1992 – 1995 were handled by Alan Glen and then 1995 – 2001 by Billy Boy Miskimmin. In 1994 the band had the prestigious honour of being invited by Eric Clapton to support him over twelve nights at the Royal Albert Hall.
Nine Below Zero formed their own record company ZED Records in 1997, releasing the ‘Refrigerator’ album in 2000. In 2012 Brian Bethell, from the 1982 ‘Third Degree’ era, re-joined replacing Gerry McAvoy. Then in 2014, Mickey ‘Stix’ Burkey from the 1980 ‘Live At The Marquee’ era re-joined replacing Brendan O’Neil, thus completing the classic ‘Third Degree’ era line-up. The band went on to celebrate their 35th Anniversary with a UK tour with the classic ‘Third Degree’ line-up to rave reviews. In 2016 saw the first appearance of the Nine Below Zero ‘big band’ with the release of the ‘13 Shades Of Blue’ album. Brian Bethell left in 2016 to be replaced by Ben Willis, Mickey Burke left in 2018 to be replaced by Dennis Greaves’s son Sonny.
‘Avalanche’ opens with the jaunty South London Mod swagger of ‘Wanna Be A Wannabe’. A brilliant slice of gritty R&B, with humorous lyrics, about the façade of social media. Feltham skilfully peppers the track with his wonderful harmonica playing. No one plays harmonica like Mark Feltham, pure class! He is all over this track and it’s a joy to the ears. Normally Feltham would sing one or two songs per album, but not so on this one, and no writing credits either. All twelve tracks are co-writes with Greaves and various other members of the band. ‘Ter Wit Ter Woo’ is a Greaves co-write with Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, a version of this song actually appeared on the 2011 album ‘The Co-Operative’, a collaborative album with Tilbrook. This song has a sensational catchy chorus that sticks in the memory! Instantly appealing, with beautiful soulful lead vocals from Charlie Austen. A tasteful harmonica solo from Feltham gives the track extra texture. This track blends Country with Soul music, and has been in their live set for a couple of years now.
Third track in, ‘Race To The Bottom’ is well funky indeed! A magnificent wah wah guitar groove by Greaves anchors the track and sets it on its merry way to Funk heaven! A kind of funky Acid Jazz type song, a nice contrast to the previous two tracks. Greaves and Austen's voices blend well on this song. “We began at the top, it's a race to the bottom, its an avalanche you can't stop.” Continuing the funky theme comes the grooving piano driven and horn heavy ‘Hey Siri! (Go **** Yourself)’, a James Brown style instrumental piece, with some tasty Jazz Funk jamming. Each band member gets the opportunity to take a solo on this one. Track five, the excellent ‘Austerity Blues’, is real authentic down home Blues with lyrics that reflect some of the hardships and stresses we all face day in day out. “Zero hour contracts, minimum wage, things ain't looking good in this day and age, austerity blues.” This is the kind of music Nine Below Zero excel at and which Greaves was born to do, and he shines through out the track.
‘Roots And Wings’ is a slow Country, Soul, Blues, Americana styled track with tasteful horn accompaniment and delectable ‘oooo’ backing vocals. This track has some cool lyrics “don’t need no weather man to tell me its raining, there ain’t no flies on me!” Track seven is called ‘Zebulon’, which is a small town in North Carolina, USA. This song has an up-beat vibe with a good ol' singalong chorus and plenty of cowbell action! Track eight ‘One Of Sour, Two Of Sweet’ is a beautiful catchy Soul/New Wave song which wouldn’t be out of place on Greaves’s other Mod/New Wave band The Truth. A sweet blend of voices from Austen and Greaves, with some tasty backing vocals, adding to the overall warmth of the track. Feltham is conspicuous by his absence on this one.
‘Picture No Sound’ is a steady rocker with a cool Stones vibe, Feltham makes his presence felt on the intro, blasting away on the harmonica with total abandon! Some jazzy horn breaks and Rhodes piano create a Jazz tinged atmospheric vibe. “I got a picture, but I ain't got no sound. It is what it is, what it is and I like it!” 'Recycle Me' is another stellar Austen lead vocal, a brilliant slow Blues with honking horns dominating the overall sound. “Recycle me when I 'm gone, take my heart, my soul, skin and bone”, a song about donating ones organs after one dies! Feltham is, once again, absent on this one.
The penultimate track, ‘Breadhead’ is a fast paced rocker with Greaves taking charge on the vocals. A vibrant acoustic guitar intro leads into some tasty strutting electric guitar riffing which packs a good ol' punch! A song about the obsession with making loads of money! The last track on the album is ‘I Drink But I Don't Get Drunk’ which has an Americana, Cajun, Bossa Nova type vibe going on. A tantalizing piano intro gets this song under way with vibrant jabbing horns dominating the sound and an exuberant saxophone providing the main riff. Amusing lyrics about drinking! “I think when I should have thunk, I drink but I don't get drunk!” I would rate this album a good nine out of ten. Definitely one of their best. The band are currently on their Fortieth Anniversary Tour ‘Are We There Yet?’. So far seven songs from 'Avalanche' have appeared in the set, which is a good indicator of the quality of the new material.
Steven C. Gilbert