(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

CD review - Royal Baths, Better Luck Next Life (2012)

Dark children of Velvet Underground offer lo-fi deathrock psychedelia

Better Luck Next Life is a soundtrack to a wicked rite, summoning spirits to stalk among us. In particular, the spirits of Lou Reed, John Cale, and the rest of Velvet Underground. Royal Baths' detuned, distorted sound is haunted by Lou Reed style vocals, a touch of Reed's droning guitar, and chaotic abandon.

This is no tribute band, though. Royal Baths may push their garage rock psychedelia into V.U. head space, but they always hold back from the Velvet Underground's total sonic surrender. This gives their songs a deeper self awareness and intent.

On Burned, they sound like throbbing, percolating darkness. The track starts with a sound somewhere between Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd and acid etched rock. During the bridge, the guitar vibrates like a fork in the fan blades, recalling European Son. At the same time, the singing balances two voices filled with detachment. As the relentless Bo Diddley beat spasms like a restless leg, the strange ecstatic rite builds. I love the intensity of the sound, as the guitars clash and flail.

Most of the tracks have a sonic immediacy, like Royal Baths is playing right in the room. This fits well with the retro feel of the album.

Better Luck Next Life
works hard to maintain its very dark vibe, occasionally even veering towards creepy. Where Velvet Underground flaunted their drug and S&M to shock listeners, Royal Baths is more direct, sometimes raising a kind of sociopathic evil in their transgressive lyrics. Even when the sound suggests a trippy ecstasy, the lyrics skew towards more sinister subjects.

Take Black Sheep: the song starts somewhere between Bauhaus and the music from Dr. Who before establishing a trippy, psychedelic verse. The vocals ping pong, splitting the lines:
I grew up rather well off -- raising hell
I gave up faking gratitude -- can't you tell?
My good friends seem to bore me -- don't ask me why
One by one, my lovers leave me --I never cry
The lyrics quickly grow more malevolent. But Royal Baths take it further. Eventually Black Sheep, along with a few other songs, push the deathrock themes too earnestly, drifting towards parody:
Bloody landscapes are my daydreams -- bodies fall
If I could touch the hem of Satan -- I would crawl
Despite loving the music, I think Royal Baths is trying too hard to shock, to the detriment of their songs.

Still, there are plenty of evocative tracks like Harder, Faster. The languid, swaying beat and the underwater Doors groove create a moody, late night feel. The repetitive bass line throbs like insomnia while the slide guitar sounds like the foggy swirl of voices in your head. The sexual focus of the lyrics matches the hypnotic haze of the music.

Royal Baths may be soaked in darkness and tension, but the jangle of guitars offer a cathartic release, as well.

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