Album Review: Philip Sayce – The Wolves Are Coming

England-born and Canada-raised guitarist Philip Sayce released his first album, Philip Sayce Group, in 1996. Tracks like that album’s “Morning Star” showcased the guitarist’s funk-heavy, Jimi Hendrix-influenced approach. High profile musicians took notice of Sayce’s talents, and by 1999 the guitarist had been recruited into Jeff Healey’s touring band, a position he held for four years. When that run ended, he joined Melissa Etheridge’s band for four years.

By the middle of the new century’s first decade, Sayce relaunched his solo career as well. His self-released Peace Machine came out in 2005; Sayce has since followed it up with a new album about every other year. He flirted with the big time as a solo artist, with recording deals with Provogue and Warner Music Canada; these days he takes advantage of the post-label landscape to release The Wolves Are Coming on Forty Below Records, a label that allows artists a greater degree of freedom and autonomy.

The Wolves Are Coming features 11 songs, nine of which are Sayce originals. Sayce plays all the guitar parts and nearly all of the bass throughout, variously enlisting the skills of drummers Michael Leasure, Aaron Sterling and Mauricio “Fritz” Lewak. A few cuts feature keyboards (by Fred Mandel). The arrangements provide a canvas upon which to apply Sayce’s searing guitar leads.

Despite its title, “Oh! That Bitches Brew” has nothing to do with Miles Davis; it feels more like Lenny Kravitz backed by a powerhouse rhythm section. Sayce’s guitar lines often unfold in lockstep with his vocal melodies; the effect doubles down on the heaviness. The shuffling “Lady Love Divine” shows another side of Sayce’s artistry, but then “Babylon is Burning” takes the vibe back toward Band of Gypsys-era Hendrix.

If the preceding tracks didn’t make it clear that Sayce worships at the altar of the guitar god from Seattle, the wah-wah opening figure of “Your Love” should wipe away any misconceptions. Lifted nearly straight from “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” it works well as an homage, but might be a bit too on-the-nose for some listeners.

Five tracks in, the unquestionably gifted Sayce displays some of his own individual character. The gospel-flavored balladry of “It’s Over Now” is a highlight of the set. And the stomping “Black Moon” shows that Sayce is adept at his own brand of modern-day glam rock. Acoustic guitars make their first notable appearance on “Blackbirds Fly Alone,” a soulful tune in (once again) a Lenny Kravitz vein.

For his arrangement of Albert Collins’ “The Moon is Full,” it’s back to Jimi territory, but considered outside that context, Sayce’s multi-guitar arrangement is thrilling stuff. “Backstabber” is an assured riff-rocking tune that ranks among the most effective cuts on The Wolves Are Coming. Easily the subtlest track on the album, the instrumental guitar-fest Intuition is also its best. Not coincidentally, it’s also the best showcase for the musical qualities that set Sayce apart from others. The disc concludes with a John Lee Hooker tune that seems flown in from a different session; the country blues acoustic guitar, piano and vocal are free of the electric guitar heroics that otherwise dominate this collection.