Before I took a minute to look at the digipak liner of Chilean groovers At Devil Dirt’s self-titled Corvus Discos debut, I listened to the record just to get a feel for the songs and said to myself at more than one point, “Ah, okay, another bass and drum duo.” Already in my head I was making comparisons to the likes of Om and Olde Growth, trying to place the Santiago twosome in between them somehow, maybe taking the ritual from one and the rock from the other. But then I went ahead and translated the line “En este álbum no fueron grabadas pistas de bajo,” and discovered that, contrary to (nearly) every impression the 12 cuts on At Devil Dirt give, there’s no bass anywhere on the record. Guitarist Néstor Ayala (also vocals) runs his guitar through a bass rig, sure enough, and the tone of it, the rich low end, was enough to fool me. On a track like “Mar Gris,” he and drummer Francisco Alvarado are the consummate rhythm section, and as there are so few parts where higher register guitar notes are used, I just assumed it wasn’t there my first couple times through. Immediate kudos there.
Another surprise came in the form of Ayala’s vocals, which proffer an unexpected melodicism and add a psychedelic feel to many of the tracks with a wide range and varied clean approach. Four of the 12 songs are sung in English and the rest in Spanish, and in either language, Ayala manages to bring forth catchy hooks and memorable lines, whether it’s the uptempo earlier cut “Rockanrolla” or the Soundgarden-esque chorus of “No Pude Ver el Sol.” It’s a contrast between the vocals and the guitar playing out across the material, but it works really well right from opener “No Puedo Mas,” and At Devil Dirt manage to make their sonic heft an effective backdrop for Ayala’s vocal layering, as on “You Know It,” where I was actually missing a guitar for thinking these were bass tracks, wondering what playful Josh Homme-style lead flourishes might sound like over Alvarado’s hi-hat work in the verses, which reminded of Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf. Likewise, on the more drum-driven “She’s Not Mine,” Ayala plays up the “Tomorrow Never Knows” frenetic rhythm with a one-man call and response that leads into one of At Devil Dirt’s most infectious choruses.
At 12 tracks/35 minutes, there isn’t much room for deep space explorations, but At Devil Dirt hold firm to atmospherics in some of the album’s back half and the aforementioned “No Pude Ver el Sol,” which follows the shorter “Ven Por Mi” and is the longest song here at just over five minutes. “No Pude Ver el Sol” also begins a string of really strong cuts that makes up the best of what At Devil Dirt has to offer listeners. “Tragos de Placer” has a progression that you immediately want to follow while listening, and though it’s predictable where the song is headed, the trip is no less enjoyable for that, Ayala’s vocals giving another highlight performance along the way. Just before three minutes in, Alvarado drops out and Ayala takes a couple riff cycles on his own, and there’s a stop, and the drums come back, and you know exactly what’s coming, but the guitar tone makes it. That riff leads into “Vida,” which is slower — more contemplative than plodding – and more ambient. If Ayala’s guitar sounds like a guitar anywhere on At Devil Dirt, it’s here, and the change in approach, despite being one of several, is welcome. The thickness kicks back in, and Ayala eventually gets around to another echoed Chris Cornell-style chorus in the final movement, but what’s most impressive about “Vida” is how much mood At Devil Dirt manage to pack into a song that’s a little less than five minutes long.
And I’m hesitant to say there’s a dip in quality as “Vida” rolls into “Mar Gris” and “That’s the Way I Like It,” but it’s clearly a transition into the record’s final movement. Those two and the closing duo of “El Dios Que Faltaba” and “Fuck Madonna” don’t necessarily range further than the band already has gone up to this point, but “El Dios Que Faltaba” finds room at 2:18 for another graceful show of melody from Ayala and cymbal crashes from Alvarado that make me think he just has gongs set up over his toms, and “Fuck Madonna” is a short, punkish blast with some background screams that also showed up toward the end of “You Know It” earlier in the record. At Devil Dirt doesn’t feel especially long or short at its runtime, but there are definitely songs that are more memorable than others. Nearly all of them though have something that makes them stand out, which works greatly to the benefit of the album overall, and for Ayala’s creative sense of melody, big-bottomed guitar and Alvarado’s versatility and foundational groove, At Devil Dirt’s At Devil Dirt is a debut that shows potential, yes, but more than that, demonstrates the duo as having a clear vision of what they want their sound to be and knowing how to achieve that on the album. Seriously. You need to hear this dude’s guitar.
Tags: At Devil Dirt, Chile, Corvus Discos, Santiago