Posted on 15 March 2010.By Graham Marlowe
For the Los Angeles-based Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC), the last year-and-a-half has been rather strange. After a long-winded tour in Europe, carrying over to the States in early 2008, the band released The Effects of 333 in the fall. It’s an album built on equal parts musique concrète and ambient noise.
Effects marked their departure from major-label obligations and constraints. Instead, they released it on their own label, Abstract Dragon. The weirdness of Effects continued with the release of a Live DVD/album in the fall, which featured more than two hours of strobe-filled mayhem from their 2008 European tour.
Once that tour was finished, drummer Nick Jago revealed that he had other (yet undisclosed) priorities to attend to. In a way, the Live CD/DVD was like the band symbolically waving goodbye to the past. While in limbo, the band picked up the Raveonettes’ touring drummer, Leah Shapiro, in order to reshape their image and sound with their sixth album.
Beat the Devil’s Tattoo finds the band in a newer, slightly more illuminated musical place. Many of these new tracks burn slowly, unlike their earlier material which more or less punches you in the face. This album makes you work for it a bit more, but it doesn’t mean that it’s any less enjoyable.
The redemptive imagery, the leather-clad theatrics, and the theme of you-and-me-against-the-world is not nearly as amplified as before, but this album carries a similar flavor. Also, unlike Baby 81, this album sounds dirty and raw, carrying an analog intimacy that perhaps they’ve grown to appreciate, mirroring their own influences. In this sense, there’s actually a distance between the band and its listeners’ headphones – a detached quality that hasn’t been present until now.
The independence of the newfound label is probably the best explanation for the change in songwriting present on Tattoo. By integrating garage-rock, post-punk, psychedelia, and space-rock into the mix over the years, BRMC has created a shit-kicking monochrome sound that utilizes several free thinking subgenres at once. In the countercultural/anarchical universe of BRMC’s music, things never really made complete sense anyways.
Certain melodies (e.g. “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” and “Conscience Killer”) sound like field hollers or modified blues riffs, which sound weird in the context of the band given that the material doesn’t progress in the same way that it’s presented. Other songs like the triumphant, anthemic “Bad Blood” and the trippy, drawn-out stomp of “Half-State” resemble something from Jason Pierce’s (Spiritualized) songbook, except they have a their own charismatic edge. These songs double as the album’s most prized, least-accessible moments. On “Half-State” in particular, Peter Hayes’ shimmery guitar leads fill the headphones with a space that is constantly expanding and speaking new tones.
The unknown folk roots that appeared on Howl (2005) are still part of the picture as well. “Sweet Feeling” and “The Toll” capture the essence of a deflated Hank Williams singing “Cool Water” – an acoustic Williams’ cover the boys play from time to time.
The title-track single, which is surprisingly weak compared to the rest of the album, states the band’s status quite clearly: “Everyone is king when there’s no one left to pawn.” Much like before, the band’s invitation to chaos still stands. And although Tattoo is a far cry from the cohesiveness of the other albums, this collection is by far their most promising in years.