Overall Score: 10/10 Songwriting: 9/10 Musicianship: 10/10 Production: 10/10 Pros: An album that can stand up against anything in their back catalogue and anyone else’s back catalogue, for that matter! Cons: Some fans may find Dulli’s less direct lyrical style nowadays harder to engage with
For most of the bands that reformed in the wake of the great gig gold rush of the noughties the following years have been a rather understated epilogue in terms of recorded output. There has been little truly great music produced by those acts, but one band who have bucked the trend are Cincinnati’s rock soul troubadours, THE AFGHAN WHIGS.
Ten years ago, main man Greg Dulli got the band back together for Do To The Beast (2014), a fantastic swing around their singular take on love’s darker corners. 2017’s In Spades was both a beginning and an end, being the last set to feature long time guitarist John Rosser, who has since passed away, but also found the band exploring less linear, more cinematic songwriting, their already lush sound blooming like black orchids in a hothouse. The band have always had a cinematic bent though, album liner notes always describe songs as being “shot at” rather than recorded at.
Unlike In Spades, which was recorded largely live in the studio, this record was made in lockdown conditions, pieced together by the band from individual recordings made all over the U.S., as well as Ireland, in the case of Mark Lanegan, whose last recorded output before his death appear here. You would never be able to tell – we can’t think of an album that sounds more cohesive, more unified in its atmosphere than How Do You Burn?. There is such a sweltering intensity throughout that despite the numerous stylistic twists, you never feel removed from its fierce artistic vision.
It begins with the promise or threat of I’ll Make You See God – the music backing up the title, being one the fastest, heaviest and most intense songs the band has ever produced. It runs on a pummelling riff that GNOD would be proud of, but for this band that’s just the start, there are diabolical sounding strings, Ritchie Blackmore-style guitar solos, a quirky sample and above it all Dulli croons, crows, screams and even sings along wordlessly to the music at one point “Bah bah, BAH BAH!” – he’s having the time of his life. You will too.
Things calm down on The Getaway, with lush strings it twirls in a poppy, psychedelic haze as Lanegan’s backing vocals rumble underneath, giving a dark counterpoint. Catch A Colt introduces a theme – a soulful shimmy that’s actually a chase through dreams “you’ve underestimated how far that I will go” admonishes Dulli. The samba school drumming gains in urgency, then a PRINCE-like bridge breaks it up, before a roof-raising finale with impassioned female backing vocals.
Jyja has an ambient intro disturbed by a huge, bass-led, fuzzy strut, Dulli‘s vocals tapdancing above the rhythms, singing another song of a man on the hunt “I’m coming home” he says, but he may not be welcome, will you be safe asleep? “I’m copping a feel as I reveal my surreptitious appetite“. Once again the temperature rises into an ever-swelling flaming rock ‘n’ soul crescendo.
Things get more respectable on the Rhodes-led R’n’B croon of Please Baby Please, in a tune that could have fitted right into 1965’s steamy, New Orleans vibe. Latest single, A Line Of Shots has a little of U2‘s Achtung Baby era juddering industrial stadium rock about it. The European police sirens that underpin then overtake the second half on the tunes underpinning its eastern European flavour.
MARCY MAYS returns for a duet on Domino And Jimmy, the track positioned in the same place as My Curse was on Gentleman (1993), side two, track two. That’s surely no coincidence as the couple whose toxic relationship was brutally exposed on My Curse meet up, older and wiser to poke through the embers of the fire they lit that burned them both. There’s no blood on the teeth this time, maybe some bitter regret, but this time they’re trying to be sweet, looking back with wisdom and affection on a love before it went sour.
Take Me There is a stadium chant, a Sky Sports ad in waiting, although done with impeccable style and taste. Glitchy soul with handclaps and a playful bass line which builds into a frenzy of massed vocals, it’s like a gospel call to arms.
You’ll need a breather, so Concealer starts acoustic, picks up a beat and adds needling, backwards psych guitars, but it feels like an extended intro into In Flames, a bluesy, boozy early morning stroll, maybe on the way home from Gods-knows-where, may still out for mischief, given the chance. “Snow blind and left behind” Dulli‘s character is reverting to type, those bad habits so hard to shake off, although there’s a sadness, not quite as unrepentant as the young rogue of old. We seem headed for a rueful, downbeat end when it suddenly bursts into full rock extravaganza mood, Dulli crying the title over and over again. “In flames! In flames! IN FLAMES!” over strafing, chiming guitars and roiling keys. That’s how they burn.
Put simply, you won’t hear a better rock album this year.
How Do You Burn? is available now via BMG.
For more information on THE AFGHAN WHIGS, like their official page on Facebook.