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Robin McAuley Discusses Black Swan's Sophomore Album
The classic rock supergroup is more cohesive on "Generation Mind," set for release on April 8.
Thanks for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. For this issue, I was honored to speak with legendary vocalist Robin McAuley, who many will know from his time with guitar hero Michael Schenker in the McAuley Schenker Group (M.S.G.). The Irishman had his first big hit in the UK, while fronting Far Corporation, when the band audaciously released a cover in 1985 of a little-known Led Zeppelin song called “Stairway to Heaven.”
I caught up with McAuley, who is currently working on a new solo album, to discuss the release of Generation Mind, the second album by Black Swan.
Let’s get to that story.
It was easy to miss the release of hard rock super group Black Swan’s debut album because we were all a bit distracted in 2020 by a global pandemic. So, it’s understandable if rock fans overlooked or forgot about Shake the World, but it’s also worthwhile to go back to it now that the band’s sophomore album is about to be released.
Generation Mind will be released by Frontiers Music on April 8 and it provides a logical next step for Black Swan, a band made up of excellent (and very busy) musicians who are well known for their work elsewhere. Legendary Irish vocalist Robin McAuley (McAuley Schenker Group) fronts the band, which includes Jeff Pilson (Foreigner, ex-Dokken) on bass, acoustic guitar, keyboards, production, and backing vocals; Reb Beach (Winger, Whitesnake) on guitars; and Matt Starr (Ace Frehley, Mr. Big) on drums.
The album will be available digitally and on CD worldwide, while a special crystal vinyl 2-LP version and an exclusive cassette version can only be purchased online via the Frontiers web store.
Black Swan began as another of the seemingly endless projects conceived by Frontiers Music founder Serafino Perugino, who asked Pilson to put together a group. Pilson spoke with Beach and got him on board and called McAuley about singing on it.
“He said, ‘You’re my only singer, so please don’t say no,’” McAuley said.
With Pilson, McAuley, and Beach as the primary songwriting force, Black Swan got Starr to do the drumming. McAuley knew Starr from working together in the successful “Raiding the Rock Vault” show in Las Vegas. The show, which has garnered annual “Best of Vegas” awards since its inception, tells the history of rock music through song and features a rotating cast of well-known musicians, including guitarist Howard Leese (Heart, Bad Company); vocalists McAuley, Todd Kerns (Slash featuring Myles Kennedy), and Paul Shortino (Quiet Riot, Rough Cutt); bassist Tony Franklin (The Firm, Whitesnake, Blue Murder); and many others.
Although Frontiers’ idea was for Pilson’s project to have a classic rock sound, the style of the band’s music came organically out of the writing sessions.
“I don't know if we put a classic rock hat on. We just wrote the music,” McAuley said. “What came out…it's the kind of music that we wanted to play, whether you call it classic rock, hard rock, whatever rock. It's Black Swan rock.”
The band recorded Shake the World and, while struggling to find a good name for the project, received the suggestion of Black Swan from Kip Winger after hearing some of the band’s early tracks.
“We came up with a bunch of names and they sucked. They were like the worst names,” McAuley said. “And then Reb called one day and goes, ‘Hey, so Kip Winger and I were just chewing it over and Kip was listening to some of the tracks…and he goes, ‘You can call it Black Swan.’’ And boom, there it was.”
Shake the World was released to the world in 2020 and received a strong critical reception.
“The reviews were great, and then the pandemic hit soon afterwards, and it just kind of rolled as it did,” McAuley said. “But the interest was great. And so, when it came around to this one, we were super stoked and super ready. It really sounds like a band.”
He’s right. Although Shake the World is an enjoyable rock album, Generation Mind, to my ears, has a more cohesive sound from start to finish. The band seems more confident on its identity on this second album.
McAuley, 69, has maintained a great voice for heavy rock. He can still hit the high notes like he did back in the 1980s, when he was with the McAuley Schenker Group, releasing excellent songs like “Gimme Your Love,” “Anytime” and “Save Yourself.” His vocals sound just as good today, and they add power and punch to Black Swan’s songs.
The album kicks off with “Before the Light,” a short, atmospheric introductory piece. It’s not essential to the album but it is kind of a cool table setter. Reb Beach’s guitar, doubled near the end, plays over a Pilson keyboard bed to get the listener in the mood. It has the effect of letting the full band punch you in the face when it kicks into the up-tempo rocker “She Hides Behind.” McAuley hits some early high notes in this song, showing that he still can, and the band scorches through the song with everything working well — Beach’s incendiary guitars, Starr’s pulsating drumming, and some fantastic chorus harmony vocals.
“Lyrically, it’s not something that we would normally put out there. It’s like a hooker truck driver,” McAuley said with a big laugh. “I’m not even sure how it came about. It was just kind of fun. And it was that driving sort of track. I remember coming to Jeff, and I’m going, ‘Can I actually say that?’ And he goes, ‘I think you’re already doing it.’ It just comes at you.”
Title track “Generation Mind” was a worthy choice as the album’s first single. If you threw some classic Scorpions, Dokken, and Def Leppard into a blender, it might come out sounding like this song. And yet, it manages to sound fresh and vibrant. Beach provides one of his best guitar solos on the record, and there’s a brief moment when the song slows down for a sultry McAuley vocal line before slamming back into the chorus. It’s an album highlight.
“Eagles Fly” was the second single released from the album. Black Swan’s songwriting chops and Pilson’s production come together brilliantly in the song’s opening bars. A headphone listen reveals that there’s a lot going on, but it somehow coalesces into something that doesn’t sound as busy as it is. Hard rock and metal fans who didn’t wear out their necks while headbanging in the 80s will find themselves bobbing their heads to this one.
“I don’t think the label wanted ‘Eagles Fly’ as the second single. I think they wanted something else,” McAuley said. “Reb and I are going, ‘Dude, it’s got to be the single!’ And what is a single anymore? It’s a showcase for the record. It’s not like they fly off the shelves or anything like that. It’s important, I think, as long as you’re supporting your own record, to back it up by (releasing) something that you think is the record. Obviously, a good hook line doesn’t hurt. I think ‘Eagles Fly’ is a kick ass song.”
The infectious rock tracks continue with “See You Cry,” which opens with a crunchy riff playing under guitar stabs by Beach. Pilson’s bass and Starr’s drums provide an unbreakable foundation for Beach and McAuley to stand on throughout the album, but it’s perhaps most evident on this song.
“Killer on the Loose” is a story song about Jack the Ripper. It features some studio magic from Pilson, who provides a TV news-style voiceover that lends some modernity to the song’s theme by referencing serial killers Richard Ramirez and Jeffrey Dahmer. The band had put some similar voiceover work into “Johnny Came Marching,” one of the highlight songs from the band’s 2020 debut album, Shake the World.
“When it came to ‘Killer on the Loose,’ which is basically about Jack the Ripper, there was a whole breakdown and (Pilson) goes ‘What are we doing to do here?’ And I went, ‘I think we should do a little bit more of that (voiceover work),’” McAuley recalled. “Grab some sound bites. Have a listen to them. And do your stuff. And he’s really good at that. He puts on the radio voice. It’s just stuff that happened. So, you bring sort of a song, and then you use pieces of actual cases, and you put them into a little soundbite and stick them in the middle of a song, and it creates a complete story. It’s a Black Swan trait.”
Subject matter aside, Black Swan turns in a fine melodic rock performance on the track, straying close to 1980s Scorpions territory in the best of ways.
Whether intentional or not, I hear a bit of Rainbow influence on “Miracle,” although there’s much more than that in the song — some Dio, for example. I believe it would have made a good early single from the album and, in fact, it will become the album’s third single on the same day of the album release.
Like many classic-era hard rock and metal albums, Generation Mind includes a power ballad, and “How Do You Feel” is my favorite song on the album. There are echoes of mid-80s Great White in the bluesy way McAuley sings the lead vocal, which is echoed in Beach’s guitar playing. As far as power ballads go, “How Do You Feel” stands tall alongside any of the classics.
“I love the old ballad. ‘How Do You Feel,’ I think, is a beautiful song,” agreed McAuley.
McAuley said the Japanese release will include an acoustic version of the ballad as a bonus track and for those who like the song, it may be worthwhile jumping online to try to get a copy shipped from overseas.
“it's just a gorgeous song and the acoustic version is really cool,” he said.
After dropping to the slower tempo of the ballad, Black Swan ratchets the rock back up in “Long Way Down,” a bottom-heavy track driven by Pilson’s rapid-fire bass pulse. The already up-tempo song speeds up near the end to a frenetic pace that comes dangerously close to careening out of control in one of the album’s more breathtaking moments.
That Pilson delivers such wonderful bass lines isn’t surprising, but his initial intent was to produce and be involved in the writing, but not to play bass. McAuley said that he and Beach hounded Pilson into being the bass player after hearing his guide bass parts.
“Crown” provides another one of the albums many could-have-been-a-single moments. Though it’s a bit more of a mid-tempo song, the band melds low-end crunch, McAuley’s belted-out lead vocal, gang vocal chorus harmonies, and Van Halen-esque guitar flourishes from Beach — although his solo sounds less like Eddie and more like a unique blend of multiple influences.
For my money, “Wicked the Day” is the album’s most metal song. It provides a moment of exhilaration by picking up the pace like the downhill run of a rollercoaster and almost (but not quite) reaches the patented Iron Maiden gallop. The main riff seems like it could have come from an early Ozzy Osbourne solo album crossed with Dokken. There’s an instrumental break that veers close to Ozzy’s “Bark at the Moon” in style. Some of the band’s best harmonizing on the album takes place in this song’s chorus and it’s one of my personal favorites.
“I Will Follow” is an interesting album closer, with its slow buildup at the start and its false ending fade out/in. That moment of seemingly ending the song and then bringing it back to give a little more at the end may annoy some listeners, but having it return for a proper ending is much better than letting the fadeout close the record.
Generation Mind will likely appeal to most fans of classic rock and heavy metal, modern or 80s hard rock, and hair metal. The songs are well crafted and performed by gifted musicians. It’s music that’s meant to be cranked up to 11.
While it would be nice to have Black Swan live dates to support the album, it’s unclear at this time whether that will happen. All of the members of the band have hectic schedules with their other gigs. McAuley said he’d love to debut the band’s live show in a festival setting, after allowing for ample rehearsal time to get the show right. A festival would allow Black Swan to join a bill of similar types of bands to reach an optimal audience that would be receptive to the band’s style of music — fans who haven’t yet discovered that they’re already Black Swan fans, essentially.
For my entire conversation with Robin McAuley, check out the interview video below. We get more into Robin’s background and love of music, how and why he converted from being a rock drummer to a lead vocalist, opening for Iron Maiden while with Grand Prix, how he met up with Michael Schenker, and what’s coming up next.