With their triumphant reunion shows much more potent than could reasonably have been expected, and following two satisfying cover tracks, a brand new The Afghan Whigs album no longer seemed implausible. Sixteen years after 1965 left matters somewhat unresolved, here it is.
Unfortunately, the absence of guitarist Rick McCollum (whose incandescent strafes, riffs and effects contributed more to the Whigs sound than many might appreciate) risks making Do To The Beast more of an exercise in rebranding than in revival. The role of John Curley, Greg Dulli’s dependable collaborator and bassist, might be the only element that makes this a Whigs album rather than another instalment in the solid but less remarkable evolution of The Twilight Singers.
Well, that and its imposing power and quality, of course. Dulli hasn’t made an album this convincing and authoritative in some time, at least since The Twilight Singers’ Blackberry Belle, and the varied roster of guest musicians that he has employed has helped him steer clear of simply repeating former Whigs glories (Emeralds’ Mark McGuire offers a very different and unexpected approach to guitar playing on The Lottery). Do To The Beast may not be quite as conceptually coherent or as overwhelming as Gentlemen or Black Love, two of the finest American rock records of the ’90s, but judged on its own terms, it is an intriguing, compelling, superbly produced record that still finds Dulli preoccupied with the dark side.
The album begins with a strident and bold pair of calling cards. The distorted, aggressive grunge-glam stomp of Parked Outside has Dulli revisiting old themes accompanied by a punchy, determined band performance. Matamoros comes closest to distilling the funky, soulful essence of the end of the Whigs’ first incarnation, but with Dulli, now approaching 50, exploring a more versatile and flexible vocal presence. Here, he also seems more willing to explore the role of the studio and the nature and impact of sound.
Indeed, it is Dulli’s more varied and nuanced approach to both singing and arrangement that imbues Do To The Beast with its distinctive qualities. He has drawn from some of the more subtle and interesting elements of his work as The Twilight Singers and conducted new experiments too. The piano on Lost In The Woods is somehow both dominant and vulnerable, whilst the mariachi stylings of Algiers push Dulli into singing strongly in his upper register. Can Rova is largely about atmosphere and restraint. Whilst it constantly threatens to explode, it actually sustains its tension primarily through not providing any expected firework rock dynamics. Instead of bursting into guitar-fuelled light, it gradually swells into a four to the floor pulse and some Italian house-style piano chords. It has a sense of mystery that is every bit as forthright, imaginative and persuasive as Dulli’s more excoriating personal confession but it is also wholly unlike anything he has recorded with The Afghan Whigs before.
Royal Cream and The Lottery present The Afghan Whigs sound at its more turbulent and urgent; Royal Cream briefly recalls the cruch, crackle and fire of My Enemy. Yet even these songs seem to have a greater sense of control and experience, with Dulli imbuing a sense of wisdom and insight to accompany his fever and frenzy.
Most satisfyingly of all, the album concludes vividly and with real power. The Peter Gabriel-esque percussion of I Am Fire marks another fascinating detour for Dulli, whilst These Sticks is a brilliant, patiently unfolding epic imbued with grandeur and drama. Dulli is a man still capable of the best in sweat-soaked R&B flavoured rock ‘n’ roll, but he now has a range of subtler, more graceful manoeuvres too.