If nothing else, Full On is well named. The second full-length offering from Southern California five-piece The Freeks, it’s an album that has a few different working modes and moves with ease between them, but whatever the band — led by guitarist/vocalist Ruben Romano (ex-Nebula/Fu Manchu drums) — does during any given stretch of the album, rest assured, they’re going all out. That’s as true of the acoustic summertime The Freeks harness in “Splitting Atoms” as it is of the get-off-your-ass-and-rage Mondo Generator-style adults-only punk of “Bitchin’” and several of the other tracks. Romano shares vocal duties with guitarist Jonathan Hall (Backbiter) and bassist Tom Davies (also a Nebula alum), and the band is completed by Esteban Chavez on keys and drummer Hari Hassin (formerly of Roadsaw). They’re an act with a decent amount of experience who sound like they know what they’re doing when it comes to writing heavy rock and roll. Full On is for sure a West Coast album — one can hear desert-hue shades of grown-up Nebula-isms on songs like “The Secret Pathway” and “Fast and Black” — and even the rawest moments seem to be coming from that particularly Californian tradition of hardcore punk. But again, it’s a mature presentation. Not old, not tired, but conscious of the moves its making. One can get that sense even in the structure of the 10-track/34-minute Full On itself, and how songs are arranged not in clumps of rowdier and dreamier material, but in a way that keeps the listener moving from one atmosphere to another, all the while sandwiched between an intro and outro, titled “Before” and”After,” respectively, that underscore the purposefulness of what comes between them.
Tying the album together is a consistency of strong hooks and a tendency to, when they do delve into psychedelic territory, to do so in a manner that nods not at endless wandering jams, but at the roots of late-’60s pop. That’s maybe best exemplified by “Splitting Atoms,” but it shows up in side B’s “Vitamin D” as well, which is both the most singularly blissful inclusion on Full On and also the longest at 7:50. Contrasted by the rushing catchiness of “On a Whim” and “Weirdness” and “Bitchin’,” these peaceful moments can feel somewhat short-lived amid classic heavy rock raucousness, but it’s worth noting that the shifts seem effortless on the part of The Freeks and that the album, wherever it goes, does well in bringing its audience with it. The ambient intro and outro cuts, both just a little over a minute long, make for a decent bookend and provide transition into and out of the stylized chicanery that follows or precedes, but it’s in the opener-proper “Big Black Chunk” and the subsequent “Weirdness” that Romano and company really set the tone for what The Freeks have to offer sonically, the former delighting in an uptempo Alice Cooper cabaret during its verses only to give way to an immediate groover of a riff to serve as a chorus. Chavez‘ keys and a slew of spaced-out effects meet with garage boogie, and it seems for a while that “Big Black Chunk” is going to have it all until the next two pieces unfold and each give an entirely different feel for what becomes the scope of Full On. The two sides of the album — they’ve done vinyl and CD — don’t mirror each other exactly, but there are similar elements being used for both, whether it’s the sleeze-you-out groove of “Fast and Black” or the freakout that seems built up one layer at a time on “Vitamin D.”
On the subject of that last-mentioned track, I’m not sure if “Vitamin D” was written in lyrical reference to tripping on over-the-counter cough suppressants or intended to be about the sun itself — the vocals effectively create an incantation out of “Let’s go outside,” early into its run, so my inclination is the latter — but either way, it’s a highlight of the record and it’s most singularly hypnotic moment, arriving as the apex before the hustle of “Bitchin’” leads the way as a kind of palate cleanser into “After” and Full On‘s finish. From the layers of acoustic and electric guitar, the rampant solos and nigh-on-constant bass fuzz, “Vitamin D” engages in a way that maintains the songwriting acumen that the choruses of “On a Whim,” the harder-hitting “The Secret Pathway” and “Weirdness” demonstrate but also completely recontextualizes it, turning “Come feel/The sun kiss your face/Come feel/The warm on your skin,” into a kind of sing-song triumph atop acoustic strum and Echoplex-style trippery. It makes “Bitchin’” feel all the more intense, but after the similarly-minded “On a Whim” and “Weirdness,” it’s a turn not necessarily unexpected or out of place. That ultimately proves true for each shift The Freeks present on Full On, which is all the more satisfying on repeat listens for the variety. Between three vocal contributors, the two guitars, the keys and grooves from Hassin and Davies that are just as likely to be the solid ground on which a given song rests as the flowing liquid carrying it along, the 10 cuts of The Freeks‘ sophomore outing provide more than enough standouts to entice converts either among heavy psych heads looking for a mind-melting fix with a bounty of surprising turns or really any adventurous ears with an appreciation for those with little concern for boxes at all let alone thinking inside or outside of them. Whatever angle you might take it from, Full On is as advertised.
The Freeks, “Weirdness” from Full On (2013)
Tags: California, Full On, The Freeks, The Freeks Full On, Unsigned bands