A Supremely Good Surf Album by the Reigning Monarchs
Surf music may be a lot of fun, but there’s always been a dark underside to the style, from Dick Dale wailing away at ominous Middle Eastern themes, to the perennially popular horror surf of bands like Beware the Dangers of a Ghost Scorpion. The Reigning Monarchs don’t play horror surf, strictly speaking, but their music is evil. The two-guitar frontline of Greg Behrendt and Boston powerpopsters Letters to Cleo’s Michael Eisenstein fires off reverberating, snarling, menacing chromatic riffage over the hard-hitting rhythm section of bassist David Hawkins and drummer Blair Sinta. Their debut album Black Sweater Massacre is streaming all the way through at their site.
Much as their sonics are retro – vintage-sounding guitars, reverb everywhere, pummeling surf drums – the Reigning Monarchs have an original and distinctive sound. For one, they use horns (Tower of Power’s Lee Thornburg on valve trombone, flugelhorn and trumpet and Eugene Toale on sax) to raise the dramatic effect on several of the tracks here. They also blend in elements of styles that didn’t exist until surf music was already retro. The brief opening track, It Might be the Perfect Now mixes surf and dreampop, a strangely effective hybrid they revisit later with the absolutely hilarious, tongue-in-cheek Tanya Donnelly. The brass first seems like it’ll be a distraction, but it works like a charm to raise the disquiet on the deadly biker rock theme Murder Your Summer, Eisenstein’s funeral organ whirling over Behrendt’s hammering menace. Likewise, Steakhouse Blues is a Lynchian low-rent Vegas roadhouse number with wild, unhinged tremolo-picking and a tricky false ending: it reminds of Beninghove‘s Hangmen.
The album’s title track is a blistering noir tune, like a classier, more cinematic Ghost Scorpion, or a bollywood band doing surf. It’s Always Gonna Rain works a backbeat cinematic highway theme, building to a crescendo where the two guitarists throw jangly phrases at each other before returning to a cynical Old West ambience. The intense, explosive Thuggery is sort of a Peter Gunne Theme for the teens, with a slashing, off-the-rails guitar solo midway through. Swamp Thing follows a cinematic path from bright and jangly to ominously lingering and then picking up the pace with a gallop.
Frankenstein Ska begins as awfully slow ska and ends as reggae, with noisy references to the Balkans and dub in between. Moto Guzzi rips the old pop standard A Taste of Honey, while the menacing, marching Roll the Tanks evokes Laika & the Cosmonauts at their most savagely sarcastic. The album ends with Bood Red Metal Flake, bookending more reggae with lurid chordal splashes and a squirrelly, flanged guitar solo. It’s early in the year, but we have a strong frontrunner for best album of 2014.