Review Summary: Call it a comeback.Do to the Beast
is one of those records that is difficult to pin down. It is constantly evolving; ever-shifting within the confines of its rigid album casing. Perhaps it’s because The Afghan Whigs have incorporated so many different styles – some dating back to their grunge days and others acquired during their sixteen year hiatus - that they have been able to make such a resplendent and unquestionably successful return to relevancy. But regardless of reason, The Afghan Whigs sound rejuvenated. Their effortless fusion of styles makes Do to the Beast
one of the most interesting albums of the year, and a strong feat for a band that last released material in 1998.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Do to the Beast
is not a laid back, self-appreciating reunion album. The Afghan Whigs put their nose immediately back to the grindstone, despite requiring a host of fill-in guitarists (Dave Rosser, Jon Skibic and Mark McGuire, amongst others) to replace the departed Rick McCollum. His absence isn’t as detrimental as one might assume, especially on the coolly experimental ‘Matamoros’, which features a high-strung riff that provides stark contrast to both the smooth vocal melody and the patient rhythm. The opening track ‘Parked Outside’ also puts to rest any concerns with a bluesy, sinister riff that persists throughout the track’s duration while adding a darker element to Dulli’s throaty near-shouts of “you’re gonna make me break down.” The rest of the time, when The Afghan Whigs aren’t driving their songs with a powerful leading riff, they manage to survive out of sheer resourcefulness. It could be the pianos on ‘Lost In The Woods’, the percussion propelled ‘I Am Fire’, or a heavier overall focus on vocals; somehow, they just manage. The vocal efforts of front man Greg Dulli are particularly noteworthy in this department. Despite being middle aged, his rough-around-the-edge pipes haven’t lost much, and he demonstrates this from the low, stalking whispers on ‘It Kills’ all the way up to his falsetto on the lavish ‘Can Rova.’ Whenever it seems like the band could be lacking in creativity or innovation, Dulli always seems to step up and fill the void.
There is little doubt that Do to the Beast
is at its peak when The Afghan Whigs play to their experimental grunge side, though, and that is what provides the album’s clearest highlights. The aforementioned ‘Matamoros’ is one; its sheer energy and dynamic clashing of no-frills rock with middle-eastern sounding strings atop of a groovy synth bass all make it among the album’s most compelling moments. ‘Lost In The Woods’ features tremendous progression within itself, beginning as a shy piano ballad and finishing with a glorious mixture of upbeat drums, harmonious singing, and stately guitar riffs. In the album’s latter half, ‘Can Rova’ has the feel of a lush garden – an oasis in the middle of a coarse, rocky landscape. Even though Do to the Beast
might be considered slightly front-loaded in terms of its songs, closing track ‘These Sticks’ should not be overlooked. It is a fitting end to the record, revving up in intensity as it goes and allowing the tension underneath the surface to eventually erupt – all before finally relenting with breezy piano notes that settle the album back into a metaphorical fetal curl. The ebb and flow of high tempo rockers and quieter, more subdued moments creates a plethora of gems within Do to the Beast
, and perhaps too many meaningful little
moments to count.
Unfortunately, there are still a handful of issues holding this album back from perfection. Even though their risks pay off for the most part here, there are still tracks that struggle to hold up on their own. I would hesitate to call them “filler” because they still provide sound substance, but they simply aren’t as memorable and/or don’t stack up in terms of creativity. ‘Royal Cream’ is relatively standard, featuring a run-of-the-mill chord progression interspersed between intriguing drum fills – however, the vocal melody fails to culminate in anything memorable or even overtly interesting at that. ‘Algiers’ suffers a similar fate, digressing after a promising intro (reminiscent of the Ronettes, perhaps even Laura Stevenson and the Cans a la ‘Master of Art’) into repetitive acoustic chords and a drum beat that grows stale over the song’s duration. Perhaps the best moments on Do to the Beast
cause the ones that lag behind a little bit to be unfairly snubbed, but it’s difficult not to notice the wide gap between The Afghan Whigs’ A-material
and the songs that simply lack that x-factor. When all is said and done though, there’s still a whole lot more of the former than there is of the latter – making this an enjoyable work all the way through.
The Afghan Whigs may not be a name that resonates in the ears of music fans nowadays. That’s bound to happen when a band has been gone for damn near twenty years. But Do to the Beast
is as quick of a climb back to prominence as you’ll find, noticeably outshining other recent reunion attempts by their 90’s contemporaries. The way they blend their tremendous list of styles and influences, modernize it, and present it with abundant creativity and technical precision is nothing short of brilliant. Yes, they still have a few kinks that need to be worked out – for instance, they need to address the game of musical chairs at lead guitarist – but a whole, The Afghan Whigs look just as unstoppable as they did in their prime. From here, it should be a steady ascension for a band that has defied the odds, overcome sixteen years of inactivity, and located the ever-elusive fountain of youth.