Review: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - "Specter at the Feast"

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In what I call one of the biggest blunders of my musical life, I only recently got more into Black Rebel Motorcycle Club after bass player/lead vocalist Robert Levon Been and guitarist Peter Hayes were featured on the Sound City movie and soundtrack. Either way, better late than never.

The follow-up to 2010’s excellent Beat The Devil’s Tattoo, Specter At The Feast can be seen as a tribute to the late Michael Been, father of lead singer Robert, and the former frontman for the band The Call. The elder Been also worked as a producer for Beat The Devil’s Tattoo, and as an engineer and sound man for much of the band’s live work. The first single off this new album is actually a cover of The Call’s 1989 hit, “Let The Day Begin.”

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, BRMC, has always been known for its gritty, garage rock sound, and this album is no different. Combining slower, more soulful songs with faster-paced hard rock anthems, Specter At The Feast sounds like it could have been conceived in one glorious, caffeine-riddled garage session, with a cover song thrown in just for a “what the hell” effect. However, it’s so much more than that.

The record begins ominously, with the creepy bells and distorted bass lines of “Fire Walker” starting Specter off with the feel of a slow, deliberate march. Been’s low, almost mumbled vocals lend an eeriness to this melody, especially when coupled with the harmonies of the chorus. Hayes’ often-distorted murky guitar parts balance out the rest of the tune with a simple line that follows Been’s bass.

“Let The Day Begin,” a cover and the first single off the album, pays tribute to Been’s late father, giving the more pop-oriented hit from the late '80s a much grittier, grungy feel. BRMC’s version removes the keyboards from the equation and relies on Hayes’ layered guitars for those parts, creating a chaotic feel to a song that was characterized by being very tight. But, as was expected, it works perfectly. Driven by a quick, simple drum beat, “Let The Day Begin” was a deserving first single from this record, and with Been singing lead like his father, a fitting tribute to the late frontman of The Call.

“Returning” slows down a record dominated by distortion, starting off with a simple synth part coupled with a surprisingly clean guitar sound. It does a beautiful job of building into an epic chorus, with that clean guitar morphing into a wave of distortion that compliments Been’s soulful, almost strained vocals. The juxtaposition of the vocals, “How much time have we got left…it’s killing us,” and this soaring guitar makes this song.

BRMC makes use of gorgeous contrasts in “Lullaby,” showcasing their ability to craft heartfelt melodies and blend them together with much more gnarly sounds. The initial Eastern-psychedelic acoustic opening of “Lullaby” quickly rises and builds towards more intricate solo parts layered over distorted rhythm guitars. It’s amazing to think that only three people recorded these songs.

“Hate The Taste” begins with Been’s watery-sounding bass that drives the rest of the song by never changing once. Despite its simplicity, this bass line forms the backbone of the rest of the song in the intro before launching into a much more uptempo, dance-beat. The minimal guitars during the verses simply build towards the dance-rock mixed with hard-rock explosion during the choruses. The lyrics “I wanna ride with you, why won’t you take me there,” are simple, but for a more dance-oriented song, simplicity and rhythm is key.

I sure do love me that whammy pedal. The wah-wah heavy intro of “Rival” picks up the pace and doesn’t let up once. Not once. With crashing cymbals and a fast drumbeat, the BRMC sound that is so often dominated by Been’s bass takes a backseat to the drums and guitar that seem to be talking to each other throughout the song. Departing from his usual subdued vocals, Been’s choruses, “I need a rival, I found my soul and set it on fire,” are much grittier than what we’re used to on this record.

The song “Teenage Disease” sounds like it could have been written during a Mountain Dew-fueled rage in a pissed-off teenager’s bedroom. Don’t let that take away from the simple genius of this song of rebellion. “I’m a common cold, you want it, come and get it” are growled through layers of drums, bass, and guitar that follow the same rhythm perfectly. This may be my favorite song off this record.

We kind of needed a break after that mosh-worthy jam. BRMC gives us that with “Some Kind Of Ghost,” an organ-driven, hymn-like tune that sings much like a gospel song. With its blues-oriented, muted guitars and subdued percussion, “Some Kind Of Ghost” provides a welcome shift from the gritty garage rock of the rest of the album.

In keeping with the slower theme of “Some Kind Of Ghost,” the next song, “Sometimes The Light” begins with an almost churchlike, symphonic opening, combining softer vocals with expanded instrumentation to create a truly uplifting sound.

“Funny Games” gets back to the grungy, angst-filled sound of the rest of the album with a dark, bass-fueled opening that adds layers as the verse progresses. Once it gets to the chorus, the song really opens up and brings the noise. Singing “Our whole life won’t be the same, there’s no one safe from this,” Been dives headfirst into a cacophonous chorus that marks a serious dynamic shift from the softer, darker sounding verse.

The last two songs on the album, “Sell It” and “Lose Yourself” bring back the slower pace of the middle part of the album, albeit in two very different ways. “Sell It,” really sells itself with the feel of a funeral dirge, incorporating bells and a snare-heavy drum line. Been’s low-volume vocals lend themselves perfectly to the dark nature of this already slow song, with lines like “got blood on the empty page” bringing back some creepiness and haunting to the record. Just when you think the song will stay slow and soft however, the chorus explodes with Been’s growl of “It’s not enough to make it all OK.”

“Lose Yourself” is a longer, softer seven-minute epic that is the perfect album closer. The low guitars and minimal drums in the beginning set the tone for a more heartfelt, emotional song that is highlighted by Been’s hauntingly clear voice, singing “won’t you lose yourself…at all.” Hayes’ higher guitar notes come in slowly and subtly, not overpowering Leah Shapiro’s drums or Been’s vocals at all. When the chorus hits, the song rises to new heights, with Hayes bringing in a high, floating solo reminiscent of Noel Gallagher of Oasis.

The song, and the record, end with the same bells as the opener, “Fire Walker,” providing a nice bookend to this shifting, whirling album of softer songs with more dynamic shifts and dark, punchy garage rock anthems.

 

For more musical musings and opinions, follow Adam on his always wonderful Twitter, @parshallythere.

Screenshots by Emily Akin/Gavel Media.

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