Black Rebel Motorcycle Club / Night Beats at Union Transfer
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Official Page)
For 15 years, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has carried the torch for true rock and roll. The latest edition of the firebrand rock troupe, sees them at their most dynamic. Their sixth studio album, “Specter at the Feast,” ventures into diverse sonic territory, delivering their most ambitious offering yet. It’s an album of impossible dichotomies; opposing sounds amalgamate into a seamless, entirely coherent package, that rumbles with driving rhythms, and soars with skyward-arcing guitar howls. Robert Been delivers growling bass grooves on “Hate the Taste,” and Peter Hayes’ guitar wails on what may be their most hard-rocking song, “Rival.” Counterbalancing these frenetic outbursts are moments of star-gazing ambient textures, like the crystalline harmonics introducing the slinking album opener, “Fire Walker,” and the organ drones of “Returning.” There are moments of down-home blues paired alongside flailing punk bombasticism; gnarled dark rock shores upon uplifting, and optimistic anthems. Taking cues from all points of the band’s many years on the road, this record is the band’s most well-realized album to date. “We thought about making it a double album,” Been says of the many songs that were written for the record.
To write the album, the Los Angeles band traveled north to the sleepy Northern California town of Santa Cruz, where they holed up in an old Post Office-turned-recording studio. It was here, just a few blocks from where Been grew up, that they began to write.
“Peter would spend all day and night in that studio,” Been recalls, “[Drummer] Leah [Shapiro] and I would go and check on him every few days, and he’d show us these incredible textures and guitar lines that he built.”
“I’ve never seen the sunrise so many times,” Hayes laughs, “I’d work all night on these songs, trying to get them right.”
Prior to heading north to Santa Cruz, Dave Grohl invited them to his Studio 606, home to the storied Neve 8028 console soundboard from the legendary Sound City — the subject of his recent documentary — and on which Nirvana created “Nevermind” and BMRC recorded their debut album in 2001. “It was a nice sense return,” Been says, “to come back to the place where it all began for us.”
For two years, the band worked on creating the album, a process that they all agree, was one of the most difficult of their career. Like the Macbeth quote that became the album’s title, there was a painful shadow that had been cast upon the band.
During the band’s 2010 tour, Robert’s father Michael Been — known for fronting 1980’s alt-rock group, The Call — died while backstage. He was BRMC’s sound engineer, and as Hayes says, “he was like another member of the band.” They finished the tour but afterward, the trauma began to set in.
“Music began as the best way to escape what was out there, all the shit in the world that feels false, everything you want to say against it,” Been says, “but when a loss like this is so close to music, it turns everything upside down. Music becomes the one place where you can’t escape. It’s like waking up in a completely different world. How do I get my bearings in this world?”
Slowly, the band began to rebuild. They fought grief and the pain of Michael’s death by confronting it directly, with no fear.
“The only thing that felt good was just getting together, plugging in, and turning up loud as shit,” Been says. “It was kind of this therapeutic process, playing really loud, and just feeling this energy; letting that be a release. It really helped us pull out of that darkest place that we were in.”
As their momentum regained, their synergy reconnected them to one another. Then one session began the process that unlocked their creative energy again. “I began playing this drumbeat that I had been working on,” Shapiro says, “the guys started playing, and suddenly we realized that we were playing the Call’s ‘Let the Day Begin.’”
The unintentional homage to The Call turned into their own high-powered take on the song they performed with Michael around the world. The energy was explosive and real; it became the first song they recorded at Grohl’s studio, as a tribute to Michael’s place in the band. For Robert, of course, the meaning transcended music. “This song was one of my earliest memories of my father’s music,” he says.
Grief transformed to joy. On this album, where they dug deeper than ever before, mining these difficult emotional landscapes, the result is intense, but rapturous. From personal and intimate hymns like the “Sometimes the Light” to the buzz-saw guitars of “Teenage Disease,” Been says “it was these two extremes that we were drifting back and forth between, you feel both when you are going through what we went trough.”
Above all, “Specter at the Feast” is honest; it tells the story of a journey to Hell and back, revealing that in darkness, there can be light. Wounds will eventually heal, and maybe, music can save your life. As they sing on ‘Returning,’ “I will follow you till we all return, till we know our souls’ survived.”
Night Beats play pure psychedelic R&B music that spikes the punch and drowns your third eye in sonic waves of colour. Theirs is a bastard blues, contorted and distorted into new shapes for 21st century wastoids — once tasted never forgotten. This is music to melt your sorry little minds.
Make no mistake: their new album Who Sold My Generation sounds like it has been created against a backdrop of burning Stars and Stripes flags and with the whiff of napalm hanging in the air — an alternative universe where ‘Helter Skelter’ is the national anthem and Charlie Manson is still on the loose. Acid-test heaviness is Night Beats’ currency, but this is no out-right nostalgia trip either. Instead of Nixon and Vietnam, Night Beats have their own epoch of God and guns and bombs and drones to rail against…or flee from. Besides, bad vibrations, blues jams and id-shattering explorations are timeless pursuits – why shouldn’t today’s young generation be allowed to take a ride down the slippery spiral that sits within the centre of each of us?
On their third album – and first for Heavenly Recordings — Night Beats perhaps most recall their Texan forefathers and psyche-rock originators 13th Floor Elevators at their ‘69 peak, just before The Man busted young Roky Erickson and dragged him to the psyche ward for barbaric doses of shock treatment. These boys represent the best of the Lone Star State’s flipside – that vast dusty hinterland of the soul where it’s easy to drift off the map and reinvent yourself as part of the long lineage of creative cowboys who prefer psychotropics to rodeo riding, guitars rather than firearms.
“Old cowboy culture is alive and well in Texas,” says frontman Danny Lee Blackwell. “I grew up with Texan mythology all around us, so as a band its instilled in our blood. My Dad didn’t wrangle steers but he did pick cotton when he was young. But then cities like Austin and Dallas, where we spent most of our time growing up, have a real sense of musical history that runs deep, so we feed off legacy that too.”
From the Elevators and The Red Krayola on to pre-ZZ Top band The Moving Sidewalks, Butthole Surfers and The Black Angels – whose record label Reverb Appreciation Society have released Night Beats — and a clutch of other early cult bands besides (Bubble Puppy, Shiva’s Headband and the Golden Dawn, anyone?), Texas has always been a prime breeding ground for such outlaw music. “The Elevators were one of the reasons I decided to become a singer and form the group,” says Blackwell. “I loved their attempt to play R ‘n’ B music, but from a distinctly Texan approach. I’d say they have profoundly influenced the group, but it’s now our job to take it to another level in a new age.”
It took a cross-country relocation to instigate their formation. Night Beats were born when frontman Danny Lee Blackwell upped stick from Dallas to Seattle, Washington and was soon joined by childhood friend James Traeger. “James got me a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl when I was around 15 and it changed everything,” remembers Blackwell of his old friend. “We grew up together and once he moved up to Seattle we did everything together there too. I wanted to try out a different place, a new city, where no one knew my music and there wasn’t anything remotely similar going on. Coming from Dallas, Austin seemed like the obvious choice but I needed something more. Seattle was at one time the home to people we love like Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones so I didn’t feel too disconnected.”
The two existed initially as a guitar and drums duo, named in honour of Sam Cooke’s 1963 album Night Beat, before fellow Jakob Bowden Dallas resident joined on bass after a stint in Austin. Filtering a collective love of pioneering artists as disparate as Buddy Holly, Fela Kuti, Etta James, James Brown and Leonard Cohen, Night Beats dropped a clutch of singles, split-singles, cassette release and two albums – their self-titled debut in 2011 followed by Sonic Bloom in 2013 – as well as featuring on all manner of compilation albums that document the cutting edge of the head-bending, modern counter-cultural US underground.
Night Beats hit the road too, touring extensively with Roky Erickson, The Zombies, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Strange Boys, Black Lips, The Growlers and The Black Angels in North America, Europe, Israel, South Africa and Australia.
Recorded on old two-inch tape in Echo Park, Los Angeles at the home of producer Nic Jodoin and featuring co-production and guess bass playing from Robert Levon Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, new album Who Sold My Generation goes beyond merely being a retreading of well-worn garage / R&B path. Instead it offers a contemporary take on the psychedelic experience, a heady set of hoodoo voodoo songs. Mordant and corrosive opener ‘Celebration #1’ sets the tone with its wailing guitar jams and Messiah-like monologue, while ‘No Cops’ makes like the imaginary soundtrack to an orgiastic party somewhere in the LA hills as the summer of love gave way to an era of greed and paranoia. ‘Sunday Mourning’ is the sound of blood dripping on the twitching remains of a generation’s super ego and with a rockabilly strut, ‘Egypt Berry’ chases the White Rabbit down into a cosmic underworld while shaking its burning tail feathers
With new Who Sold My Generation, Night Beats have not only painted it black, they’ve torched the fucker and driven it off the cliff, crashing and burning into the arid canyon below.
In its afterglow only the lone howl of a solitary coyote remains.
Ben Myers. October 2015.
1026 Spring Garden St.
Philadelphia, PA, 19123