Monday, May 16, 2011

Urge Overkill - Rock & Roll Submarine

Urge Overkill
Rock & Roll Submarine
UO Records

You can't say that Urge ain't the masters of career suicide. First of all, this album is about at least 5 to 7 years overdue, considering that the band actually first reunited in about the end of November 2003. Alot of the whole industry game is timing and capitalizing on momentum, and the time was right for Urge to release an album in maybe late 2004 or early 2005 or so. Prior to that, there was the obvious implosion within the band right when they were at the peak of their powers in the mid 90's, and both Ed Roeser's (Electric Airlines) and Nash Kato's (the vastly underrated "Debutante") solo records sank without a trace.....the average Urge Overkill audience may have known the UO name, but the individual members seemed to go anonymously under the radar. I remember seeing Nash live on the "Debutante" tour, and there was a grand total of maybe 25 people in the audience. Ouch.

Prefacing this review with what we already know about the band's past exploits, obviously it's sort of difficult to write a proper review in the sense that there's this weird dichotomy happening with this record--the expectations are tremendously high in some ways since it's their first record in 16 years, but there's been so much time that has elapsed since then (and whatever is left of the reunion hype and the knowledge that this band actually still exists to any audience at all beyond a core audience of diehards), that the standards for Urge on this record have been considerably lowered. Most fans (myself included) are probably just grateful that they actually finally released anything at all. Truth be told, I was really hesitant to get too fired up about many reunion albums are put out to capitalize on revenue, instead of actually putting out something worthwhile. Ed had said that Urge were waiting to put out something that they were truly proud of, and I was really hoping for the band's sake that they were right. Apparently also having recorded a second record already as well (and perhaps seeing what this album will do in terms of sales), it's especially of concern that--taking today's current musical climate of file sharing--whether the album will actually sell well enough with paid sales. We'll see, I suppose. But I felt that I owed the band a pretty extensive review, and I highly doubt you'll read one longer than this (if you do see one, lemme know, and i'll up the ante again). I kind of am not really sure of whether this is another Flash Metal Suicide article, seeing as there's already been ones written on "Saturation" and "Exit The Dragon" here at Sleazegrinder, and everything about this one screams out for another one.

I've read a few reviews online and whatnot, and seriously, I wonder what some of them are doing reviewing an Urge record. Part of the reason i'm doing this is just know, someone who's informed should fucking do this. Maybe it's just another in their stack of delegated reviews, I dunno. Obviously one runs the risk of just writing something like "MAN, THIS IS THE BAND'S BEST EVER" or whatever else that the band has convinced you of. But hey, if you were a doorman at a fancy club, you'd probably let your friends in on the VIP guest list. Every so long, an album that comes out that you feel is either just okay, or fantastic, or a fantastic failure in it's ambition. And hey, this is just rock n' roll in the end, but the good stuff really fires me up and I never get tired of listening or writing about the pure stuff. Even if this album failed on every level, I think that it's still fascinating, just considering the circumstances of the record and band and all of that. You gotta admire a spectacular failure, too.

But if you judge a book by it's cover, the title of the album is pretty ridiculous in the way that you can only pull off if you're a great band, and coupled along with the album's artwork, it's either the perfect way to set up a punchline for a joke, or they're running with the joke and laughing at you laughing at them (for those on their mailing list, you get the updates with the silly, fake newspaper article/ headline: "I-SUB? APPLE ANNOUNCES [Steve] JOBS' AQUATIC NETWORKING DEVICE MAY NEVER BE PRODUCED!!!!!!" message to promote the album....and i'm not lying, that's the actual title of one of the album promotion mailing list messages complete with the original amount of exclamation marks).‏ Subtlety was never UO's strength.

I think that the fans are expecting this to be "Saturation Part 2" or even something that mirrors the dark, moody brilliance of "Exit The Dragon", but they're ultimately probably going to be slightly let down. But I don't mean that as a slag against this record, because really, what it lacks in the spit shined commercial rock of the Geffen era, it completely delivers on the level of sounding like, perhaps, the best Touch and Go era UO album that the band never made. In a somewhat similar regard fairly recently as of writing this review in 2011, the Flaming Lips, with "Embryonic", delivered something that wasn't to the liking of the fans that had discovered the band through their late 90's/ early 00's more pop-based records. I like it when bands dispense with what the audience expects them to do, because after awhile, maybe as a band, you feel like you should be making a Big Mac instead of delivering heartfelt tunes.

If you take "Rock & Roll Submarine" on that regard of disregarding expectations towards the most casual UO fans, it totally delivers. It's particularly satisfying to know that Urge has got back to what made their classic T&G era albums so great. I remember hearing that alot of the T&G albums were returned to stores by Urge fans that were won over by the Geffen albums, that were expecting more of the same. Even when Urge would play songs like "What Is Artane?" on the reunion tour (I saw them twice, I believe, in April/ May of 2004), you could practically feel the question mark hanging over the audience's head. You know, like, "where's the hits, man?". And I get the impression that, considering that the big singles off of "Saturation" were Nash's (as well as the Neil Diamond cover), that they'd equated Nash with being the voice of the band. I imagine that Ed taking over the majority of singing again on "Exit The Dragon" confused people, and considering that Nash only himself sings on 4 songs on this album (that aren't in tandem harmony with Ed), it's safe to say that the band has long since realized that the gravy train has long come and gone and that they're perhaps more free to do what they want with this record, instead of managers and record labels advising them on the best way back to success.

This record is more about existing at all, continuing on to play the next show, to make the next album; living to see another day. If you're going to hell, you may as well enjoy the ride instead of trying to fight it. Forget "Chinese Democracy", this album should be titled "Yes, We Still Exist". I mean, ultimately, fuck, you can't compete with your classic albums in your backcatalogue. You only get the chance to make those albums once, and you have to forge ahead, even if people never seem to hold anything else you do in nearly the amount of esteem that they hold your earlier works in (likewise for almost any artist or band that's been around for any amount of time that have well respected works). You just can't compete with "Saturation", so there's no point in doing it. It's one of the best written albums with some of the best production ever committed to tape. It's almost inevitably all downhill if you try to duplicate that exact formula (Nash tried to make another "Saturation" with "Debutante"--in terms of just writing hits type of material-- and although I love that record, it's surprising how much disdain it got from some hardcore Urge fans).

What I like about this record, is that, while it's slightly less melodically structured, it is maybe the band's rawest, album, at least since "The Supersonic Storybook" or "Stull". The production on this record absolutely pounds--there's clarity on all the instruments and everything's up front and in your face--the mix is well articulated, and I especially like the guitar tones and drum sound on this, which really give it the life, sonically, that held back "Exit The Dragon"--as much as I love that record, it sounds kind of fragile and dry and choked, like a 70's album. This is the type of record that turns shitty Fisher Price stereos into expensive high ones, and the type that turns expensive high end stereos into something that's damn near religious. Everything in the mix goes for the throat, and while I think that the vocals could maybe be a bit higher (along with the bass), there's no denying that this is a GUITAR/ DRUMS album in capital letters. As far as the signature Urge rhythm section style, do I miss Blackie? Sure. But apparently, he's still pretty messed up with drug addictions and last I heard, he was still in and out of jail for getting busted. That's a shame, but drummer Bonn Quast's harder hitting/ pounding/ more technical style works well on this record. This is some of the best drumming on a rock album in some time.

And this album actually either rectifies the things that I didn't like about the T&G albums or enhances the things that I did like about each record during that period. It's got the heavier, fuzzier songs like "Little Vice", which sounds like it could be spiritually off of "Jesus Urge Superstar" ("The Polaroid Doll" and "Dump, Dump, Dump", for example), but less meandering and more sharpened and focused. It has the smart melodic shifts and the tight, arranged rhythm section of "Americruiser"-- Quast mirrors Jack "The Jaguar" Watt alot in the fact that he plays on or ahead of the beat, instead of behind the beat like Blackie did, and he throws more fills in between the song's verse/ chorus/ verse changes. There's a real energy and technicality that's created from the rhythm section on up that forces Ed and Nash to be a little more technical, themselves.

As much as I like "The Supersonic Storybook", there's a certain technicality that was lost from "Americruiser", almost to where I kind of feel that "Americruiser" and "The Supersonic Storybook" should be reversed in the order that they were made/ put out, where "Americruiser" sounded like the more logical, pure successor to "Saturation" with it's gloss and commercial intentions. Even though I loved Blackie's style, he often gravitated towards something mid-tempo or something slower, and Quast bashing the drums ahead of the beat gives an urgency to even the slowest of the rockers on this record. The slower songs on "Exit The Dragon" sometimes sounded a bit too sluggish--like they should have been played at a slightly faster tempo. But that being said, Blackie's looseness, swing and laid back style (more like a Charlie Watts than a Bonham) are a bit missed on some of the slower tracks on this record. Mike Hodgkiss' bass lines always suit the song and move it along without adhering to the root note too much (Ed always came up with some pretty good basslines, i've thought...and when he moved to guitar, live, some of Urge's hired bassists just didn't quite get it).

"Rock & Roll Submarine" kind of reminds me alot of either a more streamlined "The Supersonic Storybook" (sans the muddy mix and better structured songs and stronger songwriting) or a completed, fully realized "Stull". "Stull", pound for pound, may be my favorite Urge release, but since it's so short, it's easy to like, but somewhat hard to love since a half album's worth of material is easier to pull off than a full album--they seemed to carry over the rawness of "The Supersonic Storybook", but with improved songwriting skills that make current songs like "Niteliner" (Stooges' influenced, for sure--listen to this right next to "Penetration"!) sound like they should be sitting right next to "Now That's The Barclords" or "What Is This Generation Coming To?". It's like the band now knows how to self produce itself without having a Butch Vig or Butcher Bros to tell them what to do (if there's one thing that Urge always had, it was top notch guys to work on their records). So they're no dummies, they've obviously learned a thing or two about the mechanics of the "boring" things that go into making great records, and how to minimize time and maximize results with a minimum of wasting time (they likely didn't have much of a budget to work on this record, seeing as that it's self released).

Considering that Urge were always primarily a live band, this is an album that they can better pull off live, without too many embellishments--sure, there's an acoustic guitar here or there, or a Mellotron flourish or a synth sound every now and then, but the core of the songs all sound like they were cut live in the studio. The best and worst aspect of "Saturation" was that it was more of a studio record, but there were difficulties in replicating the nuances of the songs, live. On the other hand, there's no doubt that songs like "Mason/ Dixon" were road tested, and that the main strength of this album is its ferocity. I can't think of a better lead off song than "Mason/ Dixon" in quite some time--it reminds me quite a bit of "The Kids Are Insane", but the Roeser/ Kato harmonizing just takes it to another much so, that you don't really realize the nuances of those intertwining melodies snaking over each other to create one big awesome voice. It would be a crime if there were no cowbell in this, and sure enough, by song's end, it's there. Urge must have amassed shitloads of spare riffs, because the best riff is probably the middle bridge one. One or two listens to this doesn't do the song justice--there's a weird two part vocal harmony (almost chant-like) behind that bridge riff, but it's so subtle that one could easily miss it. This isn't a "i'll vacuum the floor while listening to this record", you need to actually listen to it a few times to hear some of the small embellishments that are only vaguely there. There's parts of the descending vocal line that remind me a bit of "Tequila Sundae", too.

The title track follows, the verse being a somewhat spacy/ reverbed riff, eventually launching into a massive chorus with handclaps, organ and more Roeser/ Kato harmonizing. The middle, near psychedelic mellow breakdown totally works (especially with the Mellotron faux strings part), sort of like a song within a song, and things like Quast's Moon/ Bonham fills coming out of the chorus and going back into the chorus is one of those things that really elevates this album, to a point where the choruses set the verses up to hit a home run and for the verses to do the same for the choruses. I mean, you know the band are probably sitting back and smoking a cigar and fucking with you, but whereas the band was previously (unfortunately) known for being some sort of tongue in cheek schtick, they're clearly getting the last laugh here. The songs often don't come down as much as they just set themselves up for a bigger knockout punch. I mean, listen to the chorus in "Rock N' Roll Submarine"--THAT is how a chorus is written. Even just things like Nash coming in the second half of the first word in the chorus is genius, really.

First single "Effigy" (or the first song released, anyways.....i'm not sure if the band really even cares about such things as official singles, but I could be wrong) is pretty good. It's a bit curious as to why it was the first song released prior to the album's official release, as I think that "Mason/ Dixon", the title track or "Poison Flower" or "Thought Balloon" are better choices, but then again, I was also baffled as to why "The Break" was released as first single off of "Exit The Dragon" (and come to think of it, the chorus in "The Break" and "Effigy" are eerily similar.....). It kind of has a Neil Young vibe to it, and a really thick guitar sound to it. The first song on the record that comes up with Nash singing on his own is "Poison Flower"--an excellent song.

"Little Vice" is something that, as previously mentioned, sounds like something that you'd hear under the Jack Watt drumstool helmed era--the ahead of the beat, speedy near thrash is something that I don't think that you'd hear if Blackie were drumming on this record--it's probably the heaviest, fastest song on the record at a metallic intensity, and while there's no real strong chorus to it, it's got an awesome verse riff and it's nice to see that the band hasn't mellowed much with age and still only know how to do one thing: rock at the loudest volume possible. "Thought Balloon"--another Nash sung track-- may be my overall favorite song on this record. The lyric "if I gave to you a moment or two, what would you give to me?" may be directed at Nash's girl in question, but at this point, the band may as well be asking it to what remains of their 90's audience as well. When the acoustic guitar flourishes kick in later on, it's somewhat reminiscent of "Bottle Of Fur"'s soulful rock, and the middle bridge breakdown as it mellows out and builds back up again and even more again towards the end of the song is a nice touch, eventually closing off in a MUCH too short guitar solo with more of Quast's smash n' grab drum breakdowns. I'm a sucker for an awesome part of a song fading out at the end.

"Quiet Person" is the most stripped down song on the record, based around a gentle drum shuffle and acoustic guitars. It doesn't really build up to anything, but the song itself is a nice, unexpected diversion from the onslaught of rockers on the record. It could be one of those tracks that people skip over, or one of those pleasant surprises, but it may have been a better idea to put it as the last track on the record. "She's My Ride" rides a strutting riff in the verse, and decends after the choruses into some gently strummed acoustics. Whereas on "Exit The Dragon", songs like "Monopoly" or "View Of The Rain" were predominently mellow, on this record, the mellow parts are usually no more than temporary blips on the radar--they break the songs up occasionally, but not in a way that they distract or kill momentum. That was something that was great about "Saturation"--even the mellow tracks weren't really that mellow, there was still an immediacy to them. "End Of Story" has the feel of something like "This Is No Place" on "Exit The Dragon", but with "Saturation"'s immediacy--making it fall somewhere between "This Is No Place" and "Back On Me". "The Valiant" finds Nash in mid-tempo pop jangle territory once again, a bit like "Monopoly". "Niteliner" wears a Stooges influenced riff well; it's 2:15 lifespan being short and concise with a killer chorus riff. "Touched To A Cut" is probably the weakest song on the record--an odd inclusion that sounds more like it's either Can or Suicide influenced, but still yields another gear on the record. This one sounds probably the most like something off of "Jesus Urge Superstar", for better or for worse.

"Exit The Dragon" got shit on, and it later got heralded for doing it's own thing and being incredibly nuanced despite it's dry and initially lifeless exterior. I really hope that this album doesn't suffer the same fate, because it's a great album. Really, it is. There's no medallions and there's occasionally a velvet suit or two, but for the most part, Urge just sets up and rocks the way that the roll should be played. In fact, the four people in the band have worked together for many years now, and whereas on past albums where Nash and Ed sounded like they wrote their songs predominently before they brought them into the band, here, they sound like collaborations. On "Exit The Dragon", they'd definetely sounded like they were writing against each other, rather than with each other. The upside was the three dimensionality on that record, but it also lacked a bit of cohesion, almost as if there were a really overt struggle as to who was the leader of the band. The short (though you've read this far into this) would be that there's an immediacy and comfort to this record.

There's a real feel to this album, like Nash and Ed have buried the hatchet and embraced what they love and hate about the other leader in the band---their idiosyncracies, strengths and faults. Mick n' Keith can get into a fistfight, but they know that their greater whole is always a better draw and a better output than the sum of their parts. The guitars and vocals are still slightly out of tune here and there on this record, but as far as real, true rock n' roll albums, it's pretty hard to deny that at least the intention is there with this one, at least. It's no reunion, because that would imply that they ever actually really went away, and 16 years or not, these guys have the last laugh on their haters. A wise man once told me that time may not cure all wounds, but if we're lucky, it just might wound all cures. You never know. Sometimes you have to rip it down just to build it back up again, and if there's anyone that'd know, surely it would be Urge Overkill.

--Ryan Settee

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