Monday, March 18, 2013 review...

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It’s been a circuitous and strange musical evolution for the San Francisco trio 
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

After storming onto the music scene with the gritty, effects-heavy guitars that permeated their tempestuous 2001 debut, B.R.M.C., as well as their criminally underrated ’03 follow-up, Take Them On, On Your Own, Peter Hayes and Robert Been ditched their original drummer, Nick Jago, and took a sonic left-turn with the acoustic folk rock of Howl, a move which left longtime fans wondering what indeed happened to their rock ‘n’ roll.

Jago rejoined the band briefly in 2007 for the uninspired and overblown Baby 81 before being quickly shown the door once again, replaced by the Raveonettes‘ touring drummer, Leah Shapiro. Then things really got weird and rather woeful for BRMC. The murky and emotionless instrumental album, The Effects of 333, sounded like a band coming apart at the seams, or at the very least looking for direction and inspiration where none could be found. And while the group was touring behind 2010′s frustratingly uneven Beat The Devil’s Tattoo, Robert’s father, The Call‘s Michael Been, who had been serving as the band’s sound engineer for years, died of a heart attack backstage following a BRMC gig in Belgium.

But rather than splintering apart or disappearing entirely following that traumatic experience, BRMC took their time to regroup and refocus for their seventh album, Specter At The Feast, and it certainly shows. The songs fluidly blend the myriad of influences and sonic indulgences that have been the touchstone for the group over the years, without fully giving in to any of them blindly, the results of which churn with both inventiveness and raw emotion. Some of these tracks are understandably filled with wistful, stirring lyrics floating amid the fuzzed-out guitar haze the band generates. And it’s no surprise that the album’s first single is a raucous, inspired cover of The Call’s ‘Let The Day Begin‘, a bold, blustery musical salute to all that Been had meant to them.

But rather than wallow in their tragic loss over the course of the entire album, BRMC set out to instead use their new record as a way of ushering in a fresh creative phase, one where the band sounds locked in and back onto the volatile but vibrant musical track that got them noticed in the first place – just with years of well-earned wisdom and experience factored wisely into the mix.

The lead-off track, ‘Fire Walker’, perhaps plays a bit with the band’s unpredictable nature while riffing on their experimental instrumental phase, the song beginning with over a minute of ominous keyboard effects and languid electronic tones that gradually give way to a slinky bass line and hypnotic, slow-burning pulse which never fully unleashes the tension built up within.

‘Let The Day Begin’ gives the album an immediate burst of punkish adrenaline, and stands as a blistering way for the band to pay homage to Been as well as make a definitive statement that a new musical morning is indeed dawning for them. ‘Returning’ slows things down considerably, but the aching vulnerability of the track propels it heavenward before the shoegaze squall of the chorus erupts like a glorious sunrise as the song slowly unfurls and takes flight.

Much of Specter was recorded at Dave Grohl‘s L.A. studio, on the same console featured in his Sound City: The Movie documentary (coincidentally, the same board that BRMC used to record their debut), and the album definitely takes on a relaxed vibe generated by the familiarity and sonic magic coursing through their surroundings. The acoustic-based ‘Lullaby’ hearkens back to the more successful moments from Howl, and never approaches the leaden artificiality of some of those spare numbers as the plaintive sincerity of the track shines openly and honestly.

But before you think the gang in black have grown soft again, they amp up the distortion for ‘Hate The Taste,’ a straight-ahead rock song which explodes in a crunchy, catchy chorus that should loudly resonate with anyone who recognises the mistakes that they have made in the past but continues to repeat them foolishly despite themselves. ‘Rival’ brazenly nicks the riff from LCD’s ‘North American Scum‘, and doesn’t have enough originality to make it more than a forgettable mid-album track of the kind that the band has churned out plenty of throughout their patchy career. But rather than labour in that recycled realm, BRMC rip into the modern grunge-fuelled aggression of ‘Teenage Disease,’ which definitely shares some of the untamed spirit of their northern ’90s counterparts in Seattle, but still sounds fresh and fun in their capable hands.

The group takes a slow, bluesy detour on ‘Some Kind Of Ghost,’ a welcome change of pace, especially after the breathless urgency of the previous numbers. And BRMC build on that stark, unguarded sentiment with the soulful, Spiritualized-sounding hymn, ‘Sometimes The Light,’ one of the album’s clear high points, and certainly a distinctive moment where the band’s musical ambition and creative imagination fall into lock step with each other as the number soars home gracefully. The track is ultimately so enthralling that it could have easily been extended well beyond its three moving minutes and there wouldn’t be any complaints from their fans.

The whip-crack guitars of ‘Funny Games’ snap the second half of the record awake with a somewhat derivative shot, and that unbridled momentum continues into the storming discord of ‘Sell It’, which revisits the band’s new-found grunge influence and perhaps drags on a bit longer than its lack of originality warrants. The serene and stirring album closer ‘Lose Yourself’ strays perilously close to Coldplay‘s ‘Fix You‘ territory towards the end of its nearly nine minutes – thankfully never fully crossing that sappy line – but BRMC are clearly working harder here than they need to in order to draw the record to a close.

And indeed, with a bit more editing (12 songs in just under sixty minutes) Specter At The Feast would have been stellar. As it is, the album certainly finds the fiery BRMC of old rekindled, with the band wisely applying the lessons they’ve learned over the years to fortify their bold but familiar sound that, while not approaching a reinvention by any means, at least represents a definite rebirth.