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

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Recording review - Bass Drum of Death, Bass Drum of Death (2013)

Originality from the heart of the garage

Bass Drum of Death makes its home deep in the heart of the garage. Listening to their self-titled second album, it’s easy to pick up a contact buzz of gasoline huffing and carbon monoxide, exacerbated by a case of tinnitus as workbenches rattle in sympathy with guitar feedback. Blown out speakers and concrete-echo vocals are lovingly captured with the lowest of fidelity. The band started out as a solo project for John Barrett, although drummer Len Clark came on board for the first album, GB City (2011). While they have mastered the simple, shouted vocal line, a relentless, jittery pace, and walls of blunted distortion, two things distinguish them from their retro, noise-loving peers. The first is their technical competence: starts and endings are cleanly executed, the snare work is impeccable and, despite the heavily compressed sound, they fit in some decent dynamic shifts. The second difference is that while they may use punk-infused garage rock as their jumping-off point, they’re willing to play with the style, branching out to color it with thrash pop, grunge and new wave.

Even when they start with a traditional foundation, like on “I Wanna Be Forgotten” and “Such a Bore”, they find interesting directions. “Such a Bore” is built around the tag from the classic, “Gloria”, but Bass Drum of Death binds the classic riff to a new melody. The tempo modulates throughout the tune, starting with the steady drive of the main section, then picking up speed during a meltdown lead before dragging back for a brief breakdown and then resetting. The genre is rife with sloppy bands that can’t keep time, but in this case, the precise coordination between the instruments demonstrates the band’s intention.

The most interesting tracks go further afield, finding unexpected influences. I particularly enjoy “Shattered Me”, which sounds like a muffled version of Team Spirit. They capture the same flavor of optimistic, retro thrash-pop, and the twinned guitar lead is spot-on. The lyrics are a bit tricky to discern, but offer some nice phrases, “You and me/ Perplexed and out of sleep/ I’m vexed and move into my own.” Another standout was “No Demons”, which borrows a taste of Nirvana grunge, twisting “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in on itself to create a disaffected jam, shot through with drained anxiety.

Bass Drum of Death is a progression from the band’s debut, adding bass guitar into the mix, but the name continues to be a bit of a bait-and-switch. Most of these songs could still use more bottom end; tom and snares dominate the drum parts. The exception is “Way Out”, which is the strongest track on the album. Despite matching the compression level of the rest of the album, the kick drum and bass guitar finally stand out, grounding the tune. It’s a relatively sophisticated piece, with separate sections that sound like lo-fi indie rock rather than simple garage rock. The heavy opening beat sets up a see-saw guitar riff which drops into a grinding rhythm. The vocals have a punk sneer, but off-kilter guitar fills add a thin layer of disorientation. The resulting blend offers some nice surprising turns.

The success of bands like Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall has led to an inundation of follow-on acts. Bass Drum of Death’s originality is promising. Their biggest limitation is the ridiculous level of compression which mutes their energy. They shouldn't abandon the lo-fi, noisy elements of their sound, but a little more headroom would make their bass drum more lethal and give the songs more punch.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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