DEDICATED: BOTW are playing ’70s punk as they remember it: aggressive and scary.
Not that I know much about sports, but try reimagining early punk as some physically intense and massively popular athletic contest — a game like basketball, with simple objectives like putting the ball in the hole and simple rules like Keep Bouncing That Ball, played for decades, its all-stars boasting not subversive moves but barely visible tweaks. A national spectacle about which no one would dare say, “You know what, I am sick of watching a guy put that orange ball in that hole — fuck this game.” If you can reimagine punk as that, think of Brooklyn rock trio Blood on the Wall as this mostly winning Phoenix Suns–type deal, and their third album, Liferz (Social Registry), as a mostly solid season, maybe not like last year’s, but getting to the playoffs for sure.
Music critics, for whatever idiotic reason, tend to get stuck on expectations of originality. Blame the yellow British press, though we Americans are just as guilty of adhering to the mantra “If It Ain’t New, Don’t Break It.” New means you’re breaking a story, storybreaking means importance, importance means readers, and readers means ad money. At a certain point, this logic kills the music, and if you saw what Pitchfork did to that band Black Kids last year, you know how it all ends.
Not that Blood on the Wall care about any of this. Neither “artists” nor a “rock band,” they call themselves mere “rock-and-roll revivalists.” A matter of semantics, for sure — BOTW, say BOTW, are playing Rock Band to their own songs. But it takes the pressure off, and that means their new songs scream and fly and kick ass. With no worries as to what they’re doing, BOTW (and we) can concentrate on what they’re doing right: how the guitar in “Go Go Go” sounds like power cables on the brink of catching fire, how the bass tones in “Rize” move like thick liquid paint, overwhelming the mix and filling up all the empty space, and how closer “Acid Fight” reimagines a bad trip (“I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s in my face!”) without being, as it were, jammy psychedelic rock. You’re not expecting anything original — which means you might actually have a chance to enjoy the music.
BOTW’s non-promise of originality also takes the burden off yours truly — just so you know, I am in essence rewriting my review of the band’s second album, 2005’s Awesomer. My contention then was that Blood on the Wall aren’t playing punk rock but a nostalgic version of it — which is different. “Blitzkrieg Bop” the first time sounds fierce and reckless; time passes and now it’s tame enough for cellphone commercials. So Blood aren’t playing ’70s punk the way it was but the way they remember it: aggressive and scary. To bridge that gap, they make smart and barely noticeable tweaks in the production. Siblings Brad and Courtney Shanks bury their vocals in the mix much more than any punk or hardcore act they allude to ever did, and they sing farther off the beat, in thin, karaoke-like voices. Original punk-rock drumming was fast and hard, but not this fast and hard. Which is to say drummer Miggy Littleton is invaluable to this project — the guy is deadly precise but still beats the shit out of his kit.
Playing fast and loose with nostalgia is a bad look unless you’re as dedicated as these guys — who on one track are almost too dedicated and end up disrupting spacetime with what amounts to a “new” original, a song that sounds so authentically of another era that it might as well be considered a cover. In “Sorry Sorry Sarah,” Brad’s voice blurs with its own reverb, and his vocal rhythms are oddly similar to Billy Corgan’s — so much so that you wonder whether the song is by some band that none of us has ever heard of. Except, of course, Billy.