Photo by Tess Angus.
Few bands can compete with the combination of dark danger and sexy swagger of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The San Francisco-based three-piece arrived fully-formed with their 2000 debut BRMC, a record packed with garage rock slowed down and fuzzed up into dark psychedelia that offered a unique twist compared to their peers in the early ‘00s rock revival. The intervening years saw many changes for the band, from record label and drummer changes to forays into rootsy blues (2005’s Howl) and electronica-tinged instrumentals (2008’s The Effects of 333). Their last proper album, 2013’s Specter at the Feast, was created in the pall of the death of singer/bassist Robert Levon Been’s father (and the band’s live engineer) Michael Been, former lead singer of the Call.
Wrong Creatures was made in response to much happier news, with drummer Leah Shapiro having survived brain surgery prior to the recording sessions. But the news surrounding the band—good, bad, or indifferent—does little to affect their disposition. This is a BRMC record through-and-through, with all of the basic elements in place: dark atmospherics, steady rhythms that are slow but insistent, guitars that drone and buzz (but aren’t afraid to squeal at just the right moments), and dispassionate vocals delivered drenched with echo.
Which isn’t to say, thankfully, that this album is boring or samey, as BRMC have found many different ways to keep things interesting while working in their psychedelia-in-a-black-leather-jacket milieu. The brief “DFF” kicks off the album with tribal drums, a menacing bassline, and reverb-drenched voices chanting formless vowel sounds, creating a feeling as if the listener popped in the CD and instantly found themselves abandoned in a creepy, dew-drenched forest with midnight fast approaching. This forms the perfect intro for the one-two punch of “Spook” and “King of Bones,” whose swaggering bass and vocals and minimalist guitar drone rivals classic BRMC album opener “Love Burns.” The band then leaves behind the seas of distorted guitars on the sparse “Haunt,” where steady martial drums, a plodding bass, and Peter Hayes’ ringing, arpeggiated guitars are accented with aggravated strings. The effect is like Ennio Morricone teaming with Portishead, with maybe a tinge of Shapiro’s former gig with the Raveonettes thrown in for good measure. “Echo” follows, beginning with dreampop akin to Luna at their chillest before exploding into a swelling, Britpop chorus.
The album drags just a bit as it crosses the halfway point, with songs that are not objectionable but not particularly attention-grabbing either. Wrong Creatures recovers, however, with the sonically rich “Calling Them All Away,” a tone poem of a song with plodding drums, lyrics droned repeatedly until they transform into a mantra, and guitars that constantly shift between a squalling buzz and a twinkle. The stomping blues of Howl return on rocker “Little Thing Gone Wild” with a little Queens of the Stone Age swing thrown in for good measure. Surely the most divisive track on the album will be “Circus Bazooko,” a track with a lurching tempo, vocals that swerve into falsetto, and a circus calliope that combine to create an effect not unlike the aural equivalent of the pink elephant scene from Dumbo. But what absolutely cannot be argued with is the album closer “All Rise,” an affectingly gentle piano ballad. The strings of “Haunt” return here, but the effect is no longer to disorient, but rather to amplify the bare emotions on display.
Eight albums into their career, BRMC continue to find new ways to sonically expand without losing their quintessential sound. The album may be called Wrong Creatures, but there’s very little about this album that the band didn’t get exactly right. | Jason Green
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club performs Monday, February 12th at the Delmar Hall with opener Night Beats. For more information, visit http://www.delmarhall.com/event/black-rebel-motorcycle-club-021217/.