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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Afghan Whigs: Do To The Beast

AFGHAN WHIGS: DO TO THE BEAST (2014)

1) Parked Outside; 2) Metamoros; 3) It Kills; 4) Algiers; 5) Lost In The Woods; 6) The Lottery; 7) Can Rova; 8) Royal Cream; 9) I Am Fire; 10) These Sticks.

So how many people still remember Greg Dulli these days? Didn't the guy pass into predictable oblivion with the passing of the 1990s? Or wait, did he shoot himself? No, wait, that was Kurt. No, no, I think he ended up overdosing or something... oh no, silly me, that was Layne Staley. Then there used to be all these well-meaning, but impossibly boring people, you know, like Billy Corgan and Eddie Vedder and it seems they're still around, like a bunch of walking fossils from the smoky faraway era of self-loathing musical sludge, but does anyone still listen to them, other than the occasional out-of-luck rock critic? «Will review the latest Smashing Pumpkins album for food» and all that.

The point is, the Afghan Whigs were so Nineties that when, out of the blue, Greg Dulli reemer­ged after a fifteen-year gap with a brand new album, I'd almost be tempted to pre-laugh it off. It's not as if self-loathing and distorted depression have by now vanished off the surface of the earth (with the abundance of musical people today in search of an identity, practically nothing vanishes off the surface these days), but that whole attitude that the Whigs, in their heyday, shared with other grunge and «alt-rock» acts, seems to have largely melted away. So many demons were ex­orcised back then, it seems, that few were left for the 21st century.

And now, in strides Greg Dulli, back from the cold... and proceeds to exorcise yet another bunch, as if those fifteen years never frickin' happened. No, really, and I do mean it: Do To The Beast does not sound like a 2014 album — it sounds like a direct successor to Black Love and 1965, as if it were recorded the very next day, then refrigerated and stored for 500 years. Somehow, some­thing went wrong, the freon leaked out, and they simply had no choice but to release it to cus­tomers, or else it would have simply gone rotten on Dulli's ass.

This described scenario seems perfectly logical, yet, surprisingly, completely wrong: Do To The Beast is really a new album, prepared by Dulli, veteran bass player John Curley, and an expanded set of lead guitarists to replace Rick McCollum (who did play some gigs with the band around 2012, but later opted out). And you don't have to love it, but you gotta admire the fact that the re­cord ignores everything that happened ever since — and does it in a completely natural manner. Greg Dulli's musical character remains completely unaltered. He still sounds, essentially, as if he's doing cold turkey on a twenty-four-hour per day basis, and loving every moment of it.

"If time can incinerate what I was to you / Allow me to illustrate how the hand becomes the fuse". Throw in a heavy sludge riff pattern, sing this as if the fuse were stuck up your butt rather than placed in your hand, keep the tension sharp, nauseating, and unresolved for four and a half minu­tes, and you not only got yourself another minor «post-grunge» classic, but end up proving, right here and there, that you can produce thick, heavy, flaming soul of a far higher quality than any of them 21st century youngsters who really have no idea of what it really means to break down and cry. Don't be afraid to listen, Uncle Greg here is willing to teach you, though he probably does not expect you to learn anything.

The funky ʽMatamorosʼ opens with a bass groove not unlike the one that Andrew Lloyd Webber used almost half a century ago to open ʽHeaven On Their Mindsʼ — the same kind of distant-sounding, incoming and outgoing «bass probe» whose alarm signal gives a clear indication of «something's probably not quite right here». Soon enough, the song puts on a psychedelic cloak, with muffled falsetto harmonies, droning lead guitar riffs, even some treated strings for overall density; but this is fairly draggy, depressing psychedelia, more suitable for an opium den than an innocent love-in. It is also fabulously creative — possibly the album's best track, just for the sheer number of interesting little details taking place.

After these two songs, I was almost afraid that the natural course of events would be for me to conclude that Do To The Beast might be the best Afghan Whigs album, period. «Fortunately», as we go along, the songs generally become less and less memorable (also sort of a traditional trademark of Dulli's), so, on a song-by-song basis, it does not properly compare with Gentlemen or 1965. But there might not actually be any need to judge it on a song-by-song basis — it is set upon generating, preserving, and gradually dissipating a specific atmosphere, and if ʽParked Outsideʼ has already managed to get you by the balls, the sustained moodiness of songs like ʽAlgiersʼ, ʽLost In The Woodsʼ, and ʽCan Rovaʼ (dark acoustic folk!) will not let you go.

The real good news is that Dulli does not press the «distorted guitars issue» too heavily: few songs are as brutally crackling as ʽParkedʼ, and there are plenty of acoustic parts, slide phrases, piano flourishes, and even an occasional orchestrated part to keep up the mood. This might be a direct sequence of McCollum being out of the band, or perhaps it is a sign of old age, or a small conces­sion to the new age of music making, but whatever be the case, it works: Do To The Beast goes for depression, boredom, and beauty at the same time — and illustrates that on a grandiose scale in its last track, ʽThese Sticksʼ, which is repetitive, draggy, pessimistic, but still somehow rises to a fascinating crescendo, then gradually calms down — presumably, as the protagonist is bashing the last pieces of brain from his ex-lover, lying on the floor. "You thought me easy / You thought me prey / I've come to meet you / I've come to make you pay". If you think about it that way, it's pretty scary, too. Beautiful, depressing, boring, and scary — what a combo.

Who knows, maybe it is the best Afghan Whigs album, after all; at any rate, it deserves an un­questionable thumbs up — if, after a fifteen-year break, this guy is still capable of making you feel the same psychological discomfort and more, what else can you do? And note that the lyrics, as usual, are almost undecipherable, have nothing to do with the social situation or politics what­soever (most fall under the broad «me and you, dear» category, which you are then free to regard as a metaphor for God knows what) — but the lyrics really do not matter as much as the general «psychologism» of the whole thing. Suddenly, it looks like Greg Dulli is just the guy these days to give us a perfect demonstration of the real Beast Within, not some cheap post-modern fac­simile. At the very least, it's weird, and enough to recommend that the record be not forgotten.

Check "Do To The Beast" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Do To The Beast" (MP3) on Amazon

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