Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have always been a band who have stuck to a clearly defined aesthetic. Since their emergence in 2001 with their self-titled debut, their albums have intermittently alternated between adrenalized punk rock and a more spiritually tinged kind of blues rock melancholy best exemplified on their career highlight, 2005’s Howl. The band’s visual image as black clad rock ‘n’ roll evangelists has stayed true throughout their long career. Now onto their seventh album, Specter At The Feast finds BRMC attempting to harness both facets of their sound in perfect cohesion under difficult circumstances.
This album is the band’s first since the death of bassist Robert Been’s father Michael Been. The late Been’s presence hangs heavy over the record with many of the slower songs taking on a redemptive and spiritual hue. Indeed, the band have honored Been on the album by covering his band The Call’s US AOR 1989 rock hit Let The Day Begin.
Been’s death seems to have been the inspiration to prompt BRMC to eschew any sort of sonic progression in favour of distilling their sound into its key component parts and influences while attempting to perfect it. The album was primarily recorded at Dave Grohl’s studio in LA on the same console featured in his upcoming Sound City movie. This is an example of the kind of rock classicism that the band seems to be aiming for.
Despite this back to basics approach, the album sounds strangely unconvincing and laboured. There is an awkward relationship between the languid and atmospheric blues jams of tracks, like six-minute opener Fire Walker and the fuzzed up grunge rock blasts of typical BRMC rockers Hate The Test and The Rival. Specter At The Feast is neither one thing nor the other, and BRMC’s great skill of cohesion and atmosphere suffers as a result.
Throughout the rockier tracks, you get the sense that these are diluted facsimile versions of previous successes. All the established tropes are present: sleazy fuzzy riffs, louche vocals and growled exhortations of mildly clichéd lyrics like “I wanna ride with you!” However, they sound rather diminished and half hearted here when compared with previous albums. The chaotic edge, which once made the band so alluring, is sadly absent.
Rival is the nadir of the album’s heavy rock middle section, with a chorus that uses almost exactly the same structure and melody of the preceding Hate The Taste. Both these songs are lamentably reminiscent of U2 at their most blandly rockist.
Far more successful are the soothing laments of Returning and Lullaby. Based around a soaring organ and a bruised falsetto from Been it’s a quite lovely and affecting piece of gospel rock which features lyrics describing an imperceptible force that “carries us all“. Lullaby is similarly warm and contented. However, even these sorts of songs are not immune from the missteps which blight the album. Sometimes The Light aims for a Spiritualized like blissful rapture but instead floats by without leaving any sort of an impression.
Not all of Specter At the Feast’s louder moments are disappointments though; Sell It provides a welcome change of mood with its stuttering drumbeat and bass that rumbles with low brooding menace. The growled grungy chorus is aggressive, direct and, most importantly, thrilling. But these attributes are all too rare on a rather conflicted album.
After years of touring and rock excess it’s a commendable wonder that BRMC are even still here as a going concern. Following personal trauma the band have retreated into what they know best. In that space they have made a patchy record that’s very much intended for loyal followers who have completely bought into their long established aesthetic.