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When the Afghan Whigs split up in 2001, it followed a career that spanned an entire decade and included a slew of critically lauded albums, Big Top Halloween (1988), Up In It (1990), Congregation (1992), Gentlemen (1993), Black Love (1996) and 1965 (1998). Through their career they impressed critics, toured relentlessly, and had a deeply loyal group of fans. They played interesting, widely influenced music, which managed to carve its own niche while still retaining some of the sensibilities of 1990s alternative rock.
Fast-forward to 2014. Frontman Greg Dulli and bassist John Curley, along with a host of guest musicians and friends such as Alain Johannes (Queens of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures), Clay Tarver (Chavez), and Patrick Keeler (The Greenhornes, The Raconteurs, The Do-Whaters) release a new LP: Do to the Beast. It’s a strong, balanced record, which is dark in all the right places, and spiced with sweet melodies and catchy hooks.
In a sense, it’s a classic Afghan Whigs album. It’s driven by strong rhythms through bassist Curley, and through the revolving door of drummers that appear on the record. I’m not certain who plays on each track, but I’ve listened to enough Patrick Keeler to guess that he’s behind the blistering beats on “Royal Cream”, and probably a couple of other tracks too. Fierce opener “Parked Outside” is driven by a killer drumbeat and a simple, effective rhythm guitar part, and it flows easily into “Matamoros”, a rocker in the same vein.
There’s a curious change of pace quite quickly in the affair though. The opening duo set a harsh tone and a cracking pace, but the following trio – “It Kills”, lead single “Algiers”, and “Lost In The Woods” – move so deftly between tender, brooding moments, epic wails of guitar solos and crashing waves of cymbals that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were listening to mid-70s Queen. The Afghan Whigs aren’t greenhorns when it comes to borrowing elements from other genres, but one of the most surprising aspects of Do to the Beast is just how much classic 1970s rock you can hear in this album. Alternative rock bands from the 90s aren’t known for taking their cues from the country-infused rock of the early 70s, instead favouring 1980s-era punk and late 1970s heavy metal, but Do to the Beast embraces these kitschy, bluesy conventions and, particularly in desert rock ballad “Algiers”, makes it their own.
It’s pretty uncommon these days for rock bands to stick to familiar and well-worn tropes, like simple unison guitar-and-vocal parts, and very straightforward verse/chorus song structures. A lot of groups are very focused on finding their sound, with obviously varying results. With Do to the Beast, The Afghan Whigs have managed to distill the ‘rock album’ back to a humble, neat piece of work, where each song flows attractively into the other, and no moment is so overblown and assuming that it defeats its own purpose.
Part of me wants to describe the LP as inoffensive, because in a sense it’s quite pleasant to listen to. It gets by at a nice pace, and is broken down into several little sequences of two or three songs tied together with dynamic consistencies and similar themes. However, in another, more accurate sense, the thick layer of dust and grime and pure sleaze effected through Dulli’s vocals are just downright smut. Yes, the guitars are loud and fuzzy, and there are plenty of driving rhythms, but the real colour on Do to the Beast is all courtesy of Dulli’s nuanced vocals. At times, he squeezes his voice into a tight, thin falsetto, with faint cracks appearing just below the surface. At other moments, it’s tough, huge and powerful, with a commanding echo and deep range. I hear this most particularly in “Parked Outside”, with his opening roar flattening all in its path.
The traditional-grip quick-fire of drummer Patrick Keeler comes to the fore in “Royal Cream”, a standout track on the album, which props up an otherwise pretty unassuming, flat final act. It’s a shame, too, because the first half gets by with very few lame moments. Penultimate track “I Am Fire” is good without being great. It boasts a cool groove and its lead-in is nice, but emotionally I feel that this track and the album closer, “These Sticks”, just don’t get me there. The earlier moments of drama and hugeness hinted at in “Lost In the Woods” are desperate to be matched by an enormous finale, but, like many finales, it’s not what we expected: “These Sticks” is quiet and subdued, and although there’s a brief rise of horns and cymbals towards the end, it lacks any real sense of urgency or excitement.
Aside from the ending, there aren’t many things to dislike about Do to the Beast. It’s a well-produced, tight album, featuring a host of guests to fill in for members of the band that haven’t returned, like founding guitarist Rick McCullom and original drummer Steve Earle. It opens with one of the biggest, most badass songs to open a rock album in a while, and manages to sustain your attention for the most part of its 40 minutes. Musically, it’s quite obviously very accomplished, and it’s not hard to tell that experienced musicians have created it. With that in mind, consider Do to the Beast a chance for the Whigs to dust off the cobwebs, and stretch themselves out. I have a feeling that they’ll strike again soon.
Do to the Beast is available now via Sub Pop.