Groan’s second full-length, The Divine Right of Kings barely gives you a second to think before it gets its hooks in you. The album, boasting artwork by W. Ralph Walters and following a split with Finnish proto-doomers Vinum Sabbatum (review here) and their 2010 debut, The Sleeping Wizard (review here), also marks their first outing on Soulseller Records, opening with an immediate rush of three songs that run one into the next While I’m a fan of the band and have been since that debut – so I’m freely willing to admit that’s the perspective from which I’m writing – the momentum comes on quick and speaks for itself. Opener “Weeping Jesus” aligns the UK four-piece to both ‘70s and ‘90s-style doom ‘n’ roll quirk, and the ensuing “Sacrificial Virgins” sets the tone for much of the quality songwriting to follow, hooky choruses delivered with lighthearted arrogance by Andreas “Mazzereth” Maslen – the last holdout in the band as regards adopted stage names, as both guitarist Dan Wainwright and bassist Leigh Jones have dropped theirs and newly recruited drummer Chris West (also Trippy Wicked and the Cosmic Children of the Knight and Stubb) never had one – but it’s really not until the extended introduction of the third track, “Magic Man,” that Mazzereth really lays down the ethic at the heart of what Groan does. In preaching spoken word echoes atop tension-creating guitar feedback, he states:
Some days the bad, some days unworthy people, unrighteous business and the conventional grind brings you down. But you’re wise — you’re clever — you know how to deal with this bad situation. I’m talking about reaching for the Sabbath, the DC, the Priest. I’m talking about reaching for the Halen, the Quo, the Creedence. You fight the world with some tasty Stooges. You make your body move with some Grand Funk, some Foghat. These timeless motherfuckers bring forth the power that enables you to deal with it, to get off your ass and fight back. Hell, they may even inspire you to form a shitty rock and roll band. Never forget the healing power of rock. Never forget the crucial truth they bring. Friends, to you, I say this: When in doubt, rock it out.
From there, West taps his snare and they launch full-speed into “Magic Man,” one of The Divine Right of Kings’ best and most swaggering cuts, but more than that, it’s how much the mentality of the above defines the course of the album that stands Groan out from their peers. There are bands who would say the above and offer some ironic pose-out behind it. Hearing Groan as they present themselves on their second album, I totally believe they listen to Foghat. While drunk. Possibly with their shirts off, weather permitting.
It’s the ability to skirt the line between tongue-in-cheek chicanery and sincere appreciation for classic heavy rock, classic heavy metal and modern doom and stoner riffing that serves as the difference between Groan and any ironic shitbag act you’d want to put next to them. Groan means it. The Divine Right of Kings touches almost immediately on British horror cinema atmospheres in the spoken lyrics of “Weeping Jesus,” which has doomed plod behind it but still keeps a relatively accessible pace musically, and “Sacrificial Virgins” is as much about the up and down nod of its riff as it is the titular virgins, Jones and West proving a formidable rhythm section quickly while they underscore the perfectly-paced groove. Mazzereth urges the listener to “get down” and “feel the doom” before Wainwright takes a few measures of a solo and either a sample or more spoken vocals – they’re murky, so it’s kind of hard to tell – round out the track, leading directly into the above-noted intro to “Magic Man” and the song that follows, which is nothing if not the payoff the first two tracks built toward. Through these three tracks – which take only about 10 of the album’s total 39 minutes – Groan barely give the listener time to catch their breath or process what they’re hearing, such is the demented ADD mentality of them. Emerging on the other side of “Sacrificial Virgins,” one almost remembers the chorus in spite of the song, its start-stop cadence reminiscent of Cathedral at their most unabashedly rocking. “Magic Man” is made all the more a landmark both by its motoring musical and lyrical brashness, but also because it leads to the first genuine stop on The Divine Right of Kings, the track ending cold to precede the slowdown to come in “Dissolution.” Prior to, “Magic Man”’s groove is all punkish stoner, West’s drums providing critical engine to Wainwright’s leads as a brief slowdown in the second half picks up for a final run through the chorus.
In comparison, “Dissolution” is infinitely more doomed. The tempo is cut to a slower groove, and the atmosphere is darker in the guitar, a semi-choral opening giving the march some melodic context in the intro, though by the chorus, it’s Mazzereth who seems to be all over it, unwilling to relinquish some of the energy that “Magic Man” pushed forward. He’s mixed high and echoing, but that only adds to the classic metal vibe of the track, which is maintained despite a modern-sounding production, handled by the band themselves with a mastering job by West. Still, as the chorus comes back in the final slowdown Mazzereth moves further back in the mix to let the chants through, announcing that “our god is dead,” and while it’s clear the band are aware of their methods and the atmospheres they’re trying to concoct, it’s also a lot of fun to listen, that slowdown only serving to highlight the point that you never quite know where Groan are headed until they get there. That remains true even as The Divine Right of Kings moves into its next phase, “Dissolution” setting the tone for more straightforward presentation of the band’s balance between doom and heavy rock. The lighthearted feel is maintained – even in its darkest moments, as with the ending of “Dissolution,” Groan can’t help but be a good time – but there’s a shift in momentum. “Dissolution” and the following “Atomic Prophets” and “Gods of Fire” play into each other less than did the opening salvo, each song coming to its own end without bleeding directly into the next. It’s a shift in vibe to match the sonic turn between “Magic Man” and “Dissolution,” but what remains consistent is the level of songwriting as “Atomic Prophets” gets underway, West’s kick setting the pace soon to be picked up by the whole band while Mazzereth hangs back a bit before unleashing the first verse. For all intents and purposes, “Atomic Prophets” is the stoner rock to stand up to “Dissolution”’s doom, but there aren’t any feelings of inconsistency going from one to the next – the first three tracks having done well to set up an open expectation.
But for the closing title-track, which tops out at just over eight minutes, the midsection of “Dissolution,” “Atomic Prophets” and “Gods of Fire” also serves as the longest three cuts on The Divine Right of Kings, though in terms of the progression from one song to the next, it feels more about setting up another build than just stacking the longer songs together. If one looks at “Dissolution” as bringing Groan back to where they started, then “Atomic Prophets” is the middle ground between its predecessor and the payoff that comes with “Gods of Fire” – a role the more stonerly track fits decently, being both catchy on its own and well surrounded. It’s “Gods of Fire,” however, that steals the attention from the album’s overall ebb and flow, and it does so with epic metal vibing in a start-stop verse and a chorus both infectious and fist-pumpingly dopey. The lines “Gods of fire/Gods of fire/Fill me with desire/Gods of fire” provide the album’s most infectious hook, and that chorus bears such a striking similarity in ethic and cadence to that of the song “Hearts on Fire” by Swedish power metallers Hammerfall – whose lyrics were “Hearts on fire/Hearts on fire/Burning, burning with desire,” and so on – that I have a hard time believing it’s a coincidence. If I have one complaint with the Groan track, however, it’s that they didn’t go the full-Hammerfall with it. I can’t help but hear “Gods of Fire” and want three or more voices backing Mazzereth’s in the chorus. Maybe that would undercut some of the more stripped-down elements of the band’s sound, but screw it. If you’re going to go for something, go for it. The track is a riot nonetheless – even the verse proves catchy by the end – and followed by the no less charming “How Black was Our Sabbath?,” which also affirms the prior song’s chorus as no fluke in quality of craft. They know their audience, and they know the genre tropes they’re using to speak to them, but it’s worth noting that though “How Black was Our Sabbath?” makes only a slightly less subtle reference to Birmingham’s founding fathers of metal than did the intro to “Magic Man,” musically it’s all Groan’s. If you want to call Jones’ bass fills – some of The Divine Right of Kings’ finest – a Geezer Butler reference, feel free, but what they have in common is mostly righteousness, not any direct pull from one song or another.
After a mid-paced intro, Groan push “How Black was Our Sabbath?” through a quicker semi-shuffle verse and rousing chorus of, “How black was our Sabbath/You gave us life and you took it away/How black was our Sabbath/Smoke in your ruins and spit on your face,” perhaps reacting to some of Black Sabbath’s recent lineup tumult but in any case offering an excellent head-down groove, West, Jones and Wainwright converging on the chorus as though to answer the question of the hue of their own observances. They’re more metal than rock by this point, “Gods of Fire” having shifted the tone and “How Black was Our Sabbath” reaffirmed it, but even as Wainwright subtly layers in lead lines through the chorus over Jones’ thick bass and West’s ever-crisp drumming, the momentum is universally heavy. A somewhat fuzzier solo carries them to a bridge, then back through the verse and a final chorus; the structure isn’t so different from other tracks, but it’s the way “How Black was Our Sabbath?” crashes directly into the 20-second interlude “Let’s Have a Pint at the Crooked Cock” that signals the next phase of The Divine Right of Kings has begun. It’s just clanking glasses and a riff, some cursing, laughing pub noise, but its stop matches the beat on which the 2:57 “Black Death” begins, so even though it’s not as direct as the transition out of the prior cut, there’s still rediscovered fluidity to be had. What might have motivated Groan to structure The Divine Right of Kings in this manner, I don’t know and won’t speculate, but it works with the songs in the order that they are. “Black Death” stomps out a quick intro and another tasty fill from Jones leads into the verse, its medieval theme no more out of place in the band’s personality than either the bizarre doomed introduction provided by “Weeping Jesus” or the space thematic of “Atomic Prophets.” The band just goes where they want to go, and if you’re up for joining in, they seem to be cool with that. Bring beers.
To that end, “The Divine Right of Kings” (8:06) is the biggest leap Groan make on the album. Not just in track length, but the closer – which begins with church organs and Gregorian-style chanting before a sample from the 1970 film Cromwell serves as the launch point for the band to kick in just past the minute-mark – is the fullest sounding and most cohesive blend of styles here. Wainwright’s guitars are plenty fuzzed during the opening verse, but the band skillfully shift into a more open break, subtle lead lines and heavy drumming from West not taking away from the shift to a more spacious atmosphere so much as enhancing it as Mazzereth echoes out his vocals over top. Two tom hits signal a return to the verse, but it’s the smoothness of the transition that signals how far Groan have come in just the last couple years. I don’t know if adding West to the lineup has something to do with it, or general creative growth, or having a better sense of what they want to do musically than they had on the first album, but to pull off that stark a contrast in that short a time without dropping the song’s momentum is a commendable result. Mazzereth backs himself for a call and response in the verse and they transition gradually into a reinterpreted solo before breaking again at 3:43 into the quieter, more open space, the vocals ringing out over some imaginary cliffside as “The Divine Right of Kings” passes its halfway mark on the way to another verse that precedes the build that will cap the album. They start groovy and riffy, but Wainwright soon launches into a solo section that’s obviously plotted, but still effective, layers of guitar hinting at the final melody still to come as the vocals – here seem to be the extra voices that “Gods of Fire” left me wanting – reintroduce a final verse with chants around the 6:30 mark. That last verse – you could call it a chorus, but it doesn’t have the same kind of release as some of the tracks before it and seems to be going for a different, less hooky feel – is answered by more chants that end the album, and Groan leave off with their most expansive effort yet. “The Divine Right of Kings” earns its place as the closer and as the title-track, but more than that, it offers a foray no less bold than any of the band’s others into territory they’ve not yet explored. Their promise was already considerable, so to mark it as such would be redundant, but The Divine Right of Kings affirms Groan’s ability to harness a multi-faceted songwriting style while working in a variety of themes and maintaining a bullshit-free humor and a festive complete-album flow. Not bad for a band’s second record. Or sixth. One gets the sense in listening that there are still facets of what they want to be that Groan are exploring – their production methods, their blend of styles, etc. If The Divine Right of Kings is to prove one conquest en route to the next, however, I think that’d be just fine for all parties involved, if not their livers. It’s an easy record to be excited about and I can’t think of a reason not to be. Recommended.
Tags: Groan, Groan The Divine Right of Kings, Soulseller Records, UK