Do To The Beast

Afghan Whigs

Sub Pop, 2014

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Nineties music geeks like me are about the only people who remember the Afghan Whigs. Despite some good albums (Gentlemen and Black Love), the band received very little recognition, had no hits and called it a day in 1998 after the 1965 album.

Part of this relegation to cult status was the band’s dismissal of current trends, which also tied in with their sound, an amalgamation of alt-rock, pop, blues and soul/R&B set to lyrics that explored the more dramatic side of the human experience. Because they did not embrace copycat grunge/alt-rock sounds or themes, these albums hold up pretty well, to the point where their live set with Usher at last year’s SXSW festival was no surprise to fans of the band. The real surprise was that they – well, two of them, anyway – reunited at all, and that the set with Usher was the creative spark to make this new album.

As with most ‘90s bands that get back together, there is always the question of whether the band will try to copy its old sound (Soundgarden), pick up where they left off (Stone Temple Pilots) or go in a new direction while still honoring their roots. The Whigs choose the latter, both because of songwriter/singer Greg Dulli’s musical spirit and because original guitarist Rick McCollum is nowhere in sight.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Losing an original member and an original piece of the sound means this is not exactly a reunion and also means this does not sound like the Afghan Whigs of old (or any ‘90s alt-rock band, for that matter). This is a modern rock album throughout, a dark, heavy groove-centric affair with hints of blues and years of life blended into the band’s sound. That may be enough to turn away fans who were hoping for Gentlemen 2.0, but this band has never done it anybody else’s way, so why start now?

“Parked Outside” is very good, heavier than lead, the Black Keys stuck in a tar pit, with a desperation that slowly suffocates the listener right up until the grip releases after each chorus. “Matamoros” is bubbly by comparison, still wallowing a bit in the murk but making great use of guitar textures in its burbling riffs and atonal solos underneath Dulli’s pained whine.

The slower piano-led “It Kills,” which turns into a power ballad partway through, gives the listener time to breathe musically but offers a sad breakup tale, a common theme for most of the record. “Algiers” takes the familiar Ronettes “Be My Baby” drum beat (Dulli has expressed unapologetic love for old-time girl groups and R&B) and turns it into an almost-danceable song that has surprising charisma and “Can Rova” sounds a bit like Kansas’ “Dust In The Wind,” a lovely yet dense little tune that, again, breaks up the heaviness around it.

The jittery “The Lottery” and the heavy riffing and singing of “Royal Cream” are highlights as well, while the closing “These Sticks” ties together the themes of the disc with an epic, expansive feel that leaves the listener feeling both complete and unsettled.

So much desperate heaviness, though, makes the disc pretty tough to get through in one sitting, especially the dull “I Am Fire” and the funeral march slog of “Lost In The Woods,” which kills the momentum halfway through the album. The moments of breathing room are necessary and showcase Dulli’s range, but a bit of levity, of sunshine, would have been welcome. Even Black Sabbath knew to loosen up once in a while.

Still, the album accomplishes its goal of bringing the Afghan Whigs into the current age while sounding only vaguely like their original material. It may be intense, brooding, heavy and emotional, but it is very good. Perhaps now, the band can get some deserved recognition.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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