Named after a slang term for heroin, Spider Bags have slipped under many a radar since their formation in 2005. Debut album A Celebration Of Hunger arrived in 2007 when the band was focused around friends Dan McGee and Gregg Levy; it captured the punky angst of the pair and saw them mine their own hard living existence for lyrics.
The New Jersey duo had relocated to North Carolina early in the band’s existence but, following third album Shake My Head in 2012, Levy returned to New Jersey and promptly became a part-time band member, contributing guitar to just a handful of tracks this time round. Now primarily a trio, singer/guitarist McGee has retained leadership duties, supported only by core members Steve Oliva (bass) and Rock Forbes (drums) after a lifespan that has seen band members come and go at a rapid rate, extensive touring schedules often the cause of departures.
Fourth album Frozen Letter is also their debut on Merge Records, McGee claiming that this time around he wanted to make a “weird, trippy record” but the collection is essentially a game of two halves. First come the short sharp punky explosive numbers, only one of which exceeds three minutes in length – a cover version of John Wesley Coleman’s Summer of ‘79. It bounds along with energy for its full course, a classic rock ‘n’ roll effort tinged with a dab of punk within its electric guitars; a rubbery bass line provides a brief interlude in the guitaring onslaught before the song rebuilds its noisy momentum.
Back With You Again In The World opens the album in familiar Spider Bags fashion: more boundless energy drives the track forward at breakneck speed, McGee’s American drawl rising above the punchy guitars – think ‘60s psychedelia given a punk overhaul. Japanese Vacation continues the ‘60s vibe and this time punk takes a back seat with the psychedelic element coming more to the forefront of another up tempo effort. Chem Trails then continues the transformation from punk towards ‘60s psych, fuzzy guitars and frantic drumming being complemented by spacey synth backing.
The second half of the eight strong collection – which contains tracks all over five minutes in length – begins with slow, reverb/tremolo guitar twanging for Coffin Car but at almost six and a half minutes it begins to drag towards its conclusion with little excitement occurring along the way. “I think I’m coming down”, McGee sings as the song takes on a presence like the effects of drug taking from both highs to lows. Walking Bubble opens to plucked guitar for a much more laid back cut, a catchy guitar melody blending with fuzzy guitar riffing and minimal percussion for an intriguing effort.
But the true strength of the album is saved for last. First up We Got Problems – featuring Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan, who also just so happens to be the co-founder of Merge Records – is a stunning, slow trudge through some truly fantastic fuzzy wah-wah electric guitar meanderings, the instrumental passages guaranteed to tease those hairs upon the back of your neck to attention. Album closer Eyes Of Death then combines more fuzzy electric guitar mastery with a constant background riff for a track that recalls The Stooges in all their glory.
Lasting just over half an hour, Frozen Letter does feel a little incomplete. The first half of the album will blow away the cobwebs whilst the second half settles down to provide a much more rewarding experience – once the rather uninspiring Coffin Car bites the dust. In comparison to earlier efforts though, the new album feels like a huge step forward and the lengthier fuzzed out jams are excellent, and surely good enough to be spotted on a few more radars.