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Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters
Album: Carry Fire
Label: Nonesuch
Tracks: 11
Website: http://www.robertplant.com

As with 2014's acclaimed Lullaby and … The Ceaseless Roar, Robert's latest solo album (his eleventh) finds him accompanied by his Sensational Space Shifters band. Its lineup here comprises John Baggott, Justin Adams, Dave Smith, Billy Fuller and Liam "Skin" Tyson, all of whom boast significant multi-instrumental capabilities amidst an armoury of instruments that takes in assorted guitars, keyboards, programming and an array of ethnic percussion. The resulting melting-pot of world (especially North African) musics, folk, blues, country and rock continues to provide aurally stimulating and invigorating musical adventures where there's surprise and invention round every corner, and familiar-sounding riffs never quite go where you think they will. This air of the unexpected has always been a feature of Robert's music, where, while he respects and relishes his past works, each time he feels the lure and incentive to create new work.

This constant thirst for new music and quest for reinvention gives Robert's output a special sense of vision that informs the landscapes he conjures from the available palette. These internal landscapes are also conditioned by his place of residence, and here it's apparent that his move from Texas back to England three years ago has informed the musical climate which Carry Fire inhabits - the musical axis latterly shifting, perceptibly, a little further away from the strong Americana infusions of Lullaby and Raising Sand and into a moodier soundscape with a greater emphasis on dramatic layering of texture to surround Robert's unmistakable vocals (well controlled, no histrionics) and impassioned, (mostly) affirmational lyrics. The CD's title track, with its pronounced North African vibe, rocks hypnotically, whereas the dreamy romantic longing of the swooning Dance With You Tonight represents Plant at his most sensuous, and A Way With Words is plaintive and tender, contrasting with the more agitated rock'n'roll rhythms of Carving Up The World Again's commentary on world politics and borders and the ominously laid-back ambience of Keep It Hid. The disc's wild-card, an edgy cover of Ersel Hickey's Bluebirds Over The Mountain features Chrissie Hynde on sensuous duet vocal and Richard Ashton on drums, and works surprisingly well.

Three of the tracks feature the viola playing of Seth Lakeman (who's joined the band on their latest tour), and three bring in Redi Hasa on cello; two (the album's title track and the cover) are common to both guests. On several of the tracks there's a feeling of the editorial scissors being over-eagerly exercised, whereby tracks are faded out way too soon, as if the listener might stand a chance of becoming bored (yeah, as if!) - The May Queen, Bones Of Saints, Keep It Hid and Bluebirds could all've done with a little more stretching out IMHO. But the enervating music on Carry Fire still remains persuasive proof that Robert's one of the survivors, a man of vision and a major talent who no longer needs to prove anything and can proudly carry that artistic fire aloft for some time yet.

David Kidman