[Dee Calhoun releases Rotgut on June 6 via Argonauta Records. Click play above to stream the album in full.]
Currently six years deep into his tenure as frontman of Maryland doom stalwarts Iron Man, vocalist Dee Calhoun has a career that goes back more than two decades, having contributed vocals and/or bass to acts like Vision, Phantasm, Bullet Therapy and Land of Doom. That Calhoun would get around as a player shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone who’s heard him sing. His voice has a vibrato straight out of classic heavy metal in the Halfordian tradition, and he delivers lines with fist-pump-worthy power and enviable range able to move into a register high enough that his “Screaming Mad Dee” nickname seems duly earned. He’s the kind of vocalist you’d want fronting your band, and as heard on Iron Man‘s 2013 full-length, South of the Earth (review here), he only makes strong material stronger.
Rotgut, which comprises 12 tracks for a still-somewhat-manageable 55 minutes, is his first solo offering. Primarily, it features Calhoun himself, working with an acoustic guitar through songs that split the line between blues and unplugged metal atmospherically and, with cuts like “Babelkowa” and the spacious, folkish “Winter: A Dirge,” find him stretching beyond his comfort zone in one direction or another. At its core, though, Rotgut is a deeply personal affair, as emphasized by “Little ‘Houn Daddy ‘Houn” in the first half, on which Dee duets with his son, Rob Calhoun for what seems like something maybe built out for the record that started as the kind of thing a parent might sing to their child. It’s a genuinely touching moment.
Contrast that with the woman-done-me-wrong blues of “Backstabbed in Backwater” and the thrusting metal of the title-track — I don’t care if it’s distorted or not: it’s metal — and Rotgut offers a sense of breadth despite being stripped nearly to the bone in its arrangements. It does not feel like coincidence that it should open with “Unapologetic” before “Rotgut” itself and the perspective-affirming “Not Everyone Wins a Prize” take hold in succession, and the immediately defiant posture Calhoun takes on the leadoff track, his guitar backed by a shaker where on “Rotgut” it’ll come with harmonica, comes up down the line later on the twanging “Cast out the Crow” as well.
No matter where he takes a given song, however, the material belongs to Calhoun in a way that suits him well, whether that’s the more intentionally atmospheric “Sincerely Yours,” which boasts hand percussion and an electric guitar solo, or the six-minute “The Train back Home,” which seems to draw together a lot of what Rotgut is going for stylistically in its setting the vocals to soar over bluesy acoustic strum. Moments of flourish like Dee and Rob speaking before and after “Little ‘Houn Daddy ‘Houn” and Dee rounding out “Not Everyone Wins a Prize” with the spoken line, “Besides, everyone knows the best prizes come from within,” give sonic texture in addition to painting a fuller portrait of Calhoun as an artist, and the classical balladry of “Babelkowa,” while darker, adds to the context of the album overall while indulging a moment of solo voice and guitar to welcome effect. As much as he’s “Screaming Mad” Dee Calhoun, there’s clearly more underlying that persona as well, and Rotgut brings that forward in a way that would scare off lesser players — or perhaps those more prone to being apologetic in the first place.
As “Backstabbed in Backwater” gives way to “The Train back Home,” the die seems cast for the second half of the record, but Calhoun gives a different look with the trio of songs that begins with “Deifendör” and continues with “Cast out the Crow” and “Winter: A Dirge,” the album suddenly taking on something of a fantasy narrative. Calhoun, also an author, may indeed have been thinking of these together and how they might be read as a single thread, or they might have just fit, I don’t know, but with the crows and the winter and whatnot, it’s almost too easy to read a George R.R. Martin influence at work, which is quite a shift from “Backstabbed at Backwater,” whatever those crows and that winter might actually be metaphors for in reality.
Particularly the brief instrumental “Deifendör” seems like the beginning point of another movement of Rotgut, and “Winter: A Dirge” shifts into closer “At Long Day’s End” with a semi-continuation of the folkier vibe that also brings back some of the blues/metal of earlier songs like “Unapologetic” and “Not Everyone Wins a Prize,” so even more of the album as a whole is tied together as Calhoun closes out. One does not imagine a first solo outing is a decision lightly made, and I don’t know over how long a period this material was written — if it was years, I wouldn’t be surprised — but though he covers some ground sonically and stylistically from one cut to the next, Calhoun‘s voice remains the uniting element. Rotgut is a direct communication from Calhoun himself and all the more admirable for that, since that seems so clearly to be the intention in the first place.