Venice, California, trio The Shrine aren’t Tee Pee Records’ only excursion into more punkish ground over the last several years (Annihilation Time comes to mind as another, and the label is well rooted in the genre), but they might be the sturdiest bridge the long-running imprint has found yet between the varying sides of its aesthetic. The young, brash and retro-minded skater punk of The Shrine’s label debut, Primitive Blast, has been labeled “psychedelic violence” by the band itself, and while I struggle with that designation because, frankly, I don’t hear anything on the record all that psychedelic, there are definitely influences at work from riffier rock. Primitive Blast makes a show of its sneering arrogance in an early punk/modern hipster fashion (would be foolish to argue the other isn’t built largely on the one), but the difference of the roughly 30 years that separates guitarist/vocalist Josh Landau, bassist Courtland Murphy and drummer Jeff Murray from the bulk of their influences means they’re making a conscious decision to don the aesthetic like so many high-top sneakers – “Let’s do that,” instead of, “This is what I do.” Nonetheless, the nine tracks of Primitive Blast are a faithful, analog-recorded recreation of that specifically SoCal coolness, all flat skateboards and puffy hair from under ball caps and big sunglasses and calling people “bro” before you meant it ironically. I’ll say too that while they may be approaching what was essentially a natural outcrop of the post-psychedelic era in their region as one might approach a museum piece, the commitment The Shrine have to the style they’ve embarked on goes a long way toward building a sense of sincerity in the material on Primitive Blast. Heavily indebted to Black Flag – obviously – cuts like “Freak Fighter” also toy with the primordial form of glam rock that grew out of The Stooges and the MC5, and as the album is short at just over half an hour, there’s no sacrifice of immediacy or intensity to revel in those or any other tropes. They obviously knew what they were doing when they named the album.
And while that kind of self-awareness on the part of a band can often lead to critical cynicism about how contrived a work might be, Landau, Murphy and Murray have the songs on their side, and that goes a long way. They’re probably too young to remember when Damaged or My War came out, but there’s nothing to say they couldn’t have grown up with those records, seen the insufferable genre mutate from out of their inspiration, and decided to go back to the source. You don’t automatically know what someone’s experience is by listening to their music, is what I’m saying, and it doesn’t seem fair to hold someone’s age against them as a means for judging their appreciation of crossover punk. If the hip kids like punk, well, at least it’s good punk, and they’re putting it to good use on Primitive Blast, barking up guitar tonality that black metal bands dream of without realizing it with opener “Zipper Tripper,” the first of several beer-chugging dudely grooves. Black Sabbath comparisons have been tossed around, and they slow down the tempo some – the opening riff cycle is slower as well – so maybe that’s the source, but I hear it more in Landau’s scathing guitar leads than anywhere else. There’s definitely a metal side to the sound, though, and that comes across in “Zipper Tripper” and in “Whistlings of Death,” which follows and is the shortest song on the album at 2:17. Built around a chugging riff and lyrics about revolution topped by some cheeky falsetto, the song’s bridge is nonetheless metallic in its construction and the riff under the second solo – Murphy is given a brief moment to shine on bass – comes from someplace heavier. A sense of looseness and spontaneity comes through clear in Murray’s drums, which are nonetheless tight, and “Freak Fighter” continues the momentum with one of Primitive Blast’s catchiest choruses and an effective call and response in the vocals.
That may be Landau talking to himself or it may be that either Murray or Murphy backs him up, I don’t know, but “Freak Fighter” is a solid example of how The Shrine best combine early metal and punk in a way that’s true to the crossover ideal. Still more punk than not, but really just starting to think about things like the speed and six-string thrust that would become Californian thrash. Perhaps what Primitive Blast does best is capture that moment – right before the punks heard Motörhead and Slayer decided to be Slayer. “Run the Night” finds Landau tossing off leads at the end of nearly every riff cycle, but doesn’t get tired thanks in large part to the forward motion in Murray’s drumming and the stops that Murphy follows on bass. When the “solo” finally comes around after a couple verses, Landau genuinely shreds it, and for that “Run the Night” is a standout despite not having a chorus with the strength to stand up to “Freak Fighter.” If The Shrine want to show they can make a song do more than one thing, I won’t fight them. They dive into the title-track and CD centerpiece with an enthusiastic “Alright!” and proceed to show the best bass of the album and another strong chorus. Something stinks like cheap beer, and I swear I hear growling buried deep under Landau’s vocals as he delivers the title line, but I might be imagining things. It’s a party rocker, but I can’t help but enjoy the aggression and immediacy of it. “Louise” might be a comedown but for the pacing, but the song also works to set up the closing trio of “Wasted Prayer,” “Drinking Man” and “Deep River (Livin’ to Die),” the three longest and most expansive tracks on Primitive Blast. The first two are the only songs to top four minutes, and “Deep River (Livin’ to Die)” wraps the album at a surprising 6:25. They’re also the most riff-rock-derived material on The Shrine’s first collection, setting the aesthetic, well established by now, into position behind thicker and more present-seeming riffs on “Wasted Prayer” despite keeping largely the same structural base as appeared earlier.
The same could be said of “Drinking Man,” I suppose, but the added element of the day-after-regret-fueled lyrics brings its own kind of charm that’s well-fitted to the ending portion of the record. More impressive soloing, yet another trail-marking chorus, and an ending that seems to maximize the adrenaline of what preceded, all leading to a bit of wah and the shift into “Deep River (Livin’ to Die).” Interestingly, several of The Shrine’s tracks seem to use doom-styled riffing (that purported Sabbath influence, perhaps) for their introductions before going into the more blazing punk that’s actually the meat of the songs. They did it on “Zipper Tripper” to launch the album and on the title-track, and both “Drinking Man” and the closer as well. I don’t know what that might signify as to how that side of their style is bleeding into the songwriting, but it’s to their credit that they’re able to smoothly transition between that and the wild times that inevitably ensue following. “Deep River (Livin’ to Die)” has The Shrine hinting at more patience to come in its subdued midsection – more bass excellence from Murphy there as well – and balancing that well against the impetuous soloing that leads to the track’s winding down. One imagines that when they finished recording, Landau, Murphy and Murray immediately went skateboarding (perhaps on their The Shrine deck, or maybe that’s like never wearing your own t-shirt) and ditto that for the mixing, mastering, pressing – hell, I’d be not at all surprised to learn Murray tracked his drums on a half-pipe. Such is the insistence with which The Shrine convey that scraped-knee atmosphere on Primitive Blast, and since that seems to have been the whole point in the first place, I can only say well done. Skate on, gentlemen.
Tags: California, Tee Pee Records, The Shrine, The Shrine California, The Shrine Primitive Blast