In the opening title-track of New Haven, Connecticut, foursome Lord Fowl’s Small Stone debut, Moon Queen, there appears the line, “I’m in love with a satellite lady.” Read that again: “I’m in love with a satellite lady.” If you’re wondering perhaps what the hell that could possibly mean, then you’ve taken the wrong approach to Moon Queen, and like a choose-your-adventure book, you need to turn around and start over. The dually-fronted outfit is comprised of guitarist/vocalists Vechel Jaynes and Mike Pellegrino, bassist/engineer Jon Conine and drummer Don Freeman, and like the line “I’m in love with a satellite lady,” there’s a lot about the record (their second overall behind the impressive 2008 release, Endless Dynamite) that doesn’t seem to make sense at first but ultimately requires being approached on its own level. You have to be willing to go along with it, and when you do, you’ll find the trip more than justified in that Moon Queen works in several thematic. Movement is one of them. Space is another. Issues of love, sex, masculinity all crop up throughout the 12 tracks/47 minutes of the album, and very often, one song bleeds directly into the next, as “Moon Queen” does into “Touch Your Groove,” the lyrics to which contain a clear reference to the titular character described in the opener. Because this progression continues throughout the lyrics to most of the songs – including the Iron and Wine cover “Woman King,” which starts the second half – the temptation is to think of Lord Fowl working in some kind of narrative arc, but if that’s so with the lyrics, the songs themselves and the music those lyrics rest over don’t immediately seem to have the same kind of feel. That is, when things make the turn from “Quicksand”’s relationship-as-paingiver lyric to the defiance against that in “SOS,” the music remains consistent behind it without the kind of changes in mood that would connote Moon Queen having been composed entirely as a concept record in the traditional narrative sense. Still, Jaynes and Pellegrino mention flying, breaking free, driving, running, moving and going – so motion in general, transience, is a prevalent, persistent theme. In that, the music does follow suit, because if Moon Queen does anything at all, it moves.
Shades of KISS and Mötley Crüe make themselves known in songs like “Moon Queen” and “Split,” but at its heart, Moon Queen is an American-style heavy rock record. Put to tape by Conine and mixed in the Small Stone tradition by Benny Grotto at Mad Oak Studios in Allston, MA, it’s right in line with the label’s growing next-gen roster, sharing some classic soul influence with Gozu and a laid back grooving thickness with Wo Fat without losing hold either of its own identity or the personality of Lord Fowl themselves, which doesn’t shy away either from ‘70s rock suggestiveness (“Touch Your Groove,” “Hollow Horn”) or a bygone element of craft in the songwriting. Their methods are retro and their presentation is modern, in other words. Moon Queen touches on psychedelia – it would almost have to – in closer “Pluto,” which revives the space theme of the opener and thus rounds out the album nicely, but that’s a far cry from the ‘80s speed anthem “Streets of Evermore,” which might be as close as Lord Fowl get to metal in its intro but holds both to the band’s penchant for melody and has a hook too strong to be anything but accessible. Songs are well within radio range if radio was in the range of them, and despite the emphasis on tying their individual pieces together lyrically, there’s nothing pretentious in the band’s approach whatsoever, “Moon Queen” starting off introducing upbeat, fuzzed-out heavy rock with engaging riffs and a start-stop chorus highlighting both vocalists. Conine’s bass is an asset, and in both “Moon Queen” and “Touch Your Groove,” Freeman’s drums fill muted space nicely – never showy, always in service to the song, adding a little stomp to the bridge and verse of “Touch Your Groove” than only enhances its already formidable swagger. Because you can’t write a song about sex without low end, Conine’s basslines toward the halfway point also provide ample potency, while the lines, “Don’t you come too soon/She’s the queen of the moon,” leave little to the imagination as to the topic of discussion.
And if I’m focusing heavily on lyrics throughout this review, let that be a testament to the impression left from Pellegrino and Jaynes’ vocals, which are confident both on their own and all the more effective when used in combination, as on “Touch Your Groove.” The handclap-ready snare beats of “Split” lead to a faster rush in the riffing of the chorus, but again, both singers prove essential in conveying the song’s atmosphere, which is both intricate, Conine joining Freeman in the verse and bridge where the guitars cut in and out, and righteous on the surface – much like the album itself. One fuzz guitar, then two begin “Mutate” before the vocals kick in, and it’s an immediate cut in tempo from the song preceding, but already with Moon Queen, Lord Fowl have shown they can pull off such changes, and so the more open feel in the guitars and echoing vocals are far from out of place. But for the opener, “Mutate” is the shortest track on the album, but there’s still room for a reverbed Southern rock solo under which Freeman tosses in some choice fills, and for the lyrics to turn the “gotta fly” from “Split” into the “float away” as they are here before flight is once again taken on “Streets of Evermore.” It’s hard to pick a single of the record’s many hooks to reign as the defining one, but “Streets of Evermore” makes an excellent case, an infectious chorus topping lead guitar and releasing the tension built during the verse near perfectly as the song keeps hold of the “riding,” “driving” ideas that play both into the sex of “Touch Your Groove” and the overarching ideas of movement all across the record. Whether it’s superlative will depend on the listener, but the song has an energy all its own and is a definite standout, meandering a bit in its ending section before finally coming apart altogether, crashing into amp noise to lead into the police dispatch transmission sampled at the beginning of “Dirty Driving.” The song, which has the lines “If you’d like to call a spade a spade/Then you better understand that a pig is a pig,” closes out side A with Moon Queen’s only overt treatment of race – it’s hard to hear through the hits at the beginning, but I’m pretty sure that cop is dropping slurs while talking about shotguns in Watts – but even that is put into the context of driving, of moving, perhaps an answer to “Ridin’ Dirty” as filtered through soulful classic rock. The falsetto backing vocals in the chorus make it, and the dual guitar lead in the song’s second half ties it together with “Streets of Evermore” and the more Thin Lizzy-style bop of “The Queen is Not Impressed” still to come.
Before that, Lord Fowl’s take on Iron and Wine’s “Woman King” holds to some of the original version’s rhythmic sway, but recontextualizes it effectively as an insistent, lumbering fuzz rocker with ethereal delivery of its fantasy-minded lyrics – “Blackbird claw/Raving wing/Under the red sunlight,” etc. – and suitable crunch in Conine’s bass and Pellegrino and Jaynes’ guitar work. It’s a rearrangement more than a strict cover, but a fitting choice in any case, tying in shotgun shells with the shotguns of “Dirty Driving” and of course its title with the Moon Queen and “The Queen is Not Impressed,” which follows in a somewhat lighter mood, returning to some of the upbeat start-stop grooving of earlier in record. Conine’s bass fills are the richest Moon Queen has to offer, and again, the guitars come together for a solo that answers “Dirty Driving” while the song maintains a simpler pop structure, verses and choruses clearly distinguished and an echoing dueling run leading into the straightforward “Quicksand,” which aside from nodding at the questioned masculinity of its predecessor with the lyric “You make me feel like a real man,” has a progression that plays out in the new riff rock tradition – infusing ‘70s guitar and the ‘90s heaviness it inspired into its own 20-years-later purposes. I can’t help but hear some of The Brought Low in it, but that might be my ears rather than a direct influence. Thicker riffing persists in “SOS,” the opening lead lines of which might be meant to convey a siren but prove far less abrasive. The chorus feels somewhat rushed, but the song is catchy, returning to the KISS-style vocal interplay of the opener, bringing back the airborne theme with the line “Breaking free the Fowl will fly” and ending with, “I’m gonna break your spell of slime,” which works well going into “Hollow Horn,” the verses of which are basically a list of things the speaker in the song is never going to let happen again.
That song culminates with an underpinning of hopelessness, but in the meantime joins the ranks of “The Queen is Not Impressed” and “Streets of Evermore” as one of Moon Queen’s most memorable. The title may or may not be a reference to a vagina, but either way, “Hollow Horn” brims with riffy fervor, Pellegrino and Jaynes once more joining forces on vocals over a groove that’s at once familiar and inviting before the ending carries in more subtle ‘80s influence. At 4:50, it’s the longest cut but for “Pluto,” to follow, but before Lord Fowl finishes out by bringing the flight, the movement and the open space that’s been in so many of their songs full-circle, they do right to throw in a late highlight. Conine opens the tense but still subdued progression of the closer, enacting a subtle build with Freeman before dropping out for the vocals to come in and returning for the louder chorus, which is slower than one might expect but still perfect for what the band is asking the song to do – border on psychedelic while remaining grounded and sum up the pulse of the whole album. It’s not an easy job, but “Pluto” does it, musically and lyrically, giving a last-minute reminder of just how subtly expansive the trip has been. More excellent solos intertwine over languid rhythm tracks, and they finish – as though commanding themselves – with the simple word “Return.” They could just as easily be heralding their own next venture as begging their lunar monarch for one, and the sweetly-toned lead that ends the album leaves me hoping they are. Lord Fowl have left themselves some room to grow in tying the elements at work in their songwriting together and expanding on the formulas they’ve begun to establish here, but Moon Queen is a strong entry point for the band into the Small Stone milieu, right-on rocking and impressively cohesive. Wherever they head from here, these songs say much for their potential going forward – and given how much of Moon Queen is dedicated to conveying movement, one doubts very much they’ll be content to stand still. Forward it is, then. Recommended.Connecticut, Lord Fowl, Lord Fowl band, Lord Fowl Connecticut, Lord Fowl Moon Queen, Lord Fowl New Haven, Lord Fowl rock, Lord Fowl Small Stone, Moon Queen, New Haven, riff rock, Small Stone, Small Stone Records, stoner rock