Release Date: Jan 12, 2018
Record label: Vagrant Records
If nothing else, you have to admire Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s resilience. It’s easy to keep to a path when everyone is telling you ‘you’re great, this sounds amazing, you’re so totally in vogue’ and a lot harder when the response is derision or, worse, silence. Sure, they’ve taken some diversions along the way – the acoustic Howl, the formless noise of The Effect Of 333 – but they’ve always come back. If you were the cynical sort you could argue that given the cyclic nature of fads and fashions, standing still at this point is probably amongst the best things they could do.
Today, there is not much an avid listener can expect from their beloved bands other than to simply rock. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's Wrong Creatures ravages, destroys, pillages, and burns over regions of rock music's most heralded aspects: serrating distortion, kindling rhythms, Lou Reed-copied vocal tonality. The band wants little to do with an actual recusal of any one of these treasured characteristics.
While it would be incorrect to say that all of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's albums are borne out of tragedy and trial, it often feels that way. In 2010, lead singer/bassist Robert Levon Been lost his father, the Call singer (and BRMC sound engineer) Michael Been, to a heart attack, mere months after the release of Beat the Devil's Tattoo. Subsequently, a sense of loss and mourning colored all of the band's moody 2013 follow-up Specter at the Feast.
Comfortable in their own bubble... Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have kept a low profile in the past years, so listening to their latest LP, Wrong Creatures feels a bit nostalgic for me. I was a huge fan of theirs mainly during the Beat the Devil.
Since the heady days of their self-titled debut, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s unmistakeable garage drone and hectic fuzz has given ground to a growing predilection for steady but sometimes directionless classic rock ‘n’ roll, leaning too heavily on protracted, repetitious chords and choruses. The context of loss that gave us 2013’s Specter at the Feast has been much discussed, and it wouldn’t be retrodden were it not for further ill fortune befalling the band shortly thereafter, as drummer Leah Shapiro was diagnosed with Chiari malformations, a potentially life-changing brain condition affecting balance and movement. After successful surgery in 2014 (crowdfunded by fans – a humbling display of love and a chastening reminder of exorbitant medical expenses), and a tailored recovery programme courtesy of a BRMC-loving doctor, Shapiro picked up sticks the following summer to begin the writing and recording process that resulted in Wrong Creatures.
After 20 years and seven albums, blues-based psych rockers Black Rebel Motorcycle Club have become a brand of sorts. It’s a brand that’s synonymous with everything that their name implies: souped-up machines, dimly lit dive bars and lots and lots of leather. Is it the band’s fault that in the last five years, theirs is the kind of music that’s now being used to sell those very things? No.
Seventeen years ago, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club came into the scene with a blistering form of garage rock that sounded like a nonconformist response to New York City's rebirth of cool. The leather-clad San Francisco trio even posed concerns about the future of rock n' roll with plain directness on their first single, Whatever Happened to My Rock N' Roll, a sentiment that will continue to be engrained in rock purists' heads until they accept that it's been going through different permutations since the seventies. But the answer to that question was, of course, them.
In the 1953 film The Wild One, a woman asks Marlon Brando’s character, “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” He takes a quick moment to consider the question, then responds, “Whadda you got?” Black Rebel Motorcycle Club took their name from Brando’s biker gang in that film, but they also took their unfocused defiance as well. Even on their 2001 debut they were as much a stance as a sound, both of which were rooted deep in the past, not only old counterculture flicks but old rock’n’roll as well: the Velvet Underground, Suicide, Ride, the Jesus & Mary Chain. Since then they’ve hissed and shaken fists at the establishment, each album a carefully calibrated pose of rebellion based largely on past examples.
Well. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club used to be cool. Just like The Raveonettes used to be dangerous (and not just signifiers of film noir), or Wolfmother used to be awesome (not just puppets miming Led Zep – which also used to be awesome), or Tame Impala used to be the rock revival that everyone so desperately wanted (and not just Aussie lads stroking a prog-sized ego).