Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, Wasteland: Living in It

Posted in Reviews on October 11th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

uncle acid and the deadbeats wasteland

Along with the stylistic innovation of their general aesthetic, the creepy harmonies and melodic centrality of guitar and vocals, raw fuzz of their tones, their information-age mystique earlier in their career and their classic-but-obscure sound overall, Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats‘ work has never been without a corresponding sense of nuance. As they move into album number five, Wasteland — released, as ever, by Rise Above Records — the fine sonic details of their work seem to come through the recording regardless of where an individual goes structurally. The flourish of keys in “Stranger Tonight,” the organ in the ultra-hooky “Bedouin” later in the record, the mellotron and faded-in-drums of the title-track, the VHS-style sampled intro to opener “I See Through You” that set up the arrival of further samples later in “No Return,” after the bell-chord-laden marching plod of that nine-minute track has receded into a long, fog-covered fadeout, and so on.

All of these things become part of the world created at the behest of guitarist/vocalist/ringleader Kevin R. Starrs, and brought to bear with the production of Geoff Neal at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, there’s a balance created between Uncle Acid‘s long established wash of filthy fuzz grit and the melodies that are no less central to who they are as a band. Recording in the same studio where The Beach Boys tracked Pet Sounds and The Doors did Strange Days is something of a direct departure from  2015’s The Night Creeper (review here), which Starrs recorded himself and was the barest-sounding offering since their 2010 debut, Vol. 1 (reissue review here), and they flourish in the grander setting while holding to the eerie, sneaking-around-the-corner vibe that’s always been prevalent and has only helped their influence spread as it has over the better part of the last decade. With eight tracks and 47 minutes, Wasteland is the shortest offering Uncle Acid have made 2011’s world-breaking Blood Lust (discussed here), as both 2013’s Mind Control (review here) and The Night Creeper topped 50 minutes, and in addition to that, there seems to be some shift in how the band are using that time.

Consider for a moment the circumstances of Wasteland‘s release. On a more general level, between Brexit and anti-immigration populism in their native UK and an ever-present sense of disheartening political chaos in Europe and the US — the band’s two central markets — could easily justify the title alone, but when it comes to the actual songs and the album’s arrival, it’s being released at the Desert Daze festival in Los Angeles, and long before any details about Uncle Acid‘s fifth LP were made public, tour dates in Europe and the UK were announced for late-2018/early-2019.

We had “the Wasteland tour” before we knew what Wasteland was. For an act of Uncle Acid‘s profile — and at this point it’s safe to call them one of underground heavy’s most essential bands in terms of influence and their general audience reach — that they’d have a well coordinated release isn’t a surprise, but it’s all the more worth noting because so much of the focus throughout Wasteland seems to be on playing live. Of course it’s a two-sided LP and it splits more or less evenly into half with four tracks on each side. Fine. But to take the totality of the tracklisting as a linear whole from “I See Through You” to the militaristic-snare-into-empty-wind (blowing, no doubt, over the titular wasteland) finish of “Exodus,” the entire album seems to be geared toward playing live. It feels like a live set.

It launches with two immediate, standout, catchy hard rockers in “I See Though You” — a firm reminder to the audience of who Uncle Acid are and what they do — and “Shockwave City,” which comes across as something Scorpions might’ve conjured as filtered through Starrs‘ secrets-in-the-basement ideology of sound with scorching guitar work and a tightness of structure and central riff that stands tall among their finest singles. Momentum is built and slashed as “No Return” takes hold with a quiet and tense but slower progression and unfolds its nodding roll over an extended stretch replete with wailing vocals and a wash they’ve not yet brought to bear. It’s telling that at about six and a half minutes in, “No Return” drops to atmospheria, a kind of residual drone taking hold as the samples arrive. This ostensibly isn’t the end of side A — unless I’m way off as regards the placement of the songs on the vinyl; possible — but it does bring to a close the first of three movements happening throughout Wasteland.

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats (Photo by Ester Segarra)

Think of it this way: two rockers up front, longer song, two more rockers, longer song, and the finale duo of “Bedouin” and “Exodus” to end out. Three tracks, three tracks, two tracks.

This dynamic throughout the album, apart from considerations of physical format, makes Wasteland seem all the more built to be played live. “Blood Runner” and “Stranger Tonight,” like “Shockwave City” before them, barely top four minutes, and as the former taps some surprising NWOBHM gallop, the latter seems to be composed as the quintessential Uncle Acid track, from its threat of violence in the lyrics — it’s noteworthy that Wasteland is unmistakably the band’s album that’s least about killing ladies; perhaps a sign of Starrs having an ear to the ground as to the moment — to the sweep of its hook that only seems to grow more infectious with multiple listens. These in turn lead to “Wasteland” itself, which is unmistakably a forward step in the creative growth of the band.

They’re not strangers to using acoustics or turns to mellower fare, but across its nearly eight minutes, “Wasteland” takes what songs like “13 Candles” and “Black Motorcade” have done in the past to offset more raucous material directly bridges the gap between the two sides. For a band who’ve always, always, been about songwriting, it’s a new level of achievement in that. From the swaying early verses, effectively arranged with the aforementioned mellotron and harmonized vocals, other keys, guitar, bass flourish, etc., to the build that takes hold with the arrival of the drums at the halfway point and moves into an absolute apex for the album as a whole, it’s as gorgeous it is covered in grime, and its relatively quick fade seems to cut short what could’ve easily been a longer section. No mystery how it got to be the title-track; it’s the whole point. “Bedouin” fades in even more quickly than “Wasteland” went out, and begins the last of the three salvos, which works to bring the other two together somewhat.

It’s shorter than the opener at 5:41, but “Bedouin” nonetheless makes its impact with a strutting chorus and the organ in its verses, as well as highlight lead guitar work that recalls “Shockwave City” earlier but is more tripped-out with effects in its ending. But it’s a rager, and as it gives way to the slower-swinging “Exodus” — residing that rhythmic pocket that so many in the garage doom set try to capture but can’t quite do in the same way that comes so naturally to Uncle Acid — there’s a palpable sense of an encore happening. The closer lands squarely between the shorter and longer cuts, but moreover, it has a sense of finality to it that speaks to the band’s ever-cinematic sphere of influences. That is to say, roll credits.

But, more to the occasion, it’s the grand finale of the live set that is Wasteland as a whole, and though there’s nothing lacking by the time it’s done, the fact that the two prior salvos are three songs and the last one is only two seems to tip-hat to the notion of leaving the audience wanting more. Hence the sudden cut at the end of “Exodus” itself and the shorter overall runtime. It works. The danger coming into Wasteland was whether or not Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats would be seen to have run their stylistic course. Could they make their sound do something new? They haven’t yet made their Sgt. Pepper — or, if they were after my own heart, their Rubber Soul — and they may not have interest in doing so, but what Wasteland does is to bring a refreshed vitality to their approach while willfully tightening the songcraft at the same time they push forward into new ground. There will be a lot that’s familiar to established listeners, but as always with Starrs‘ work, the deeper you dig, the more you find, and Wasteland more than earns such excavation. It’d be a show to remember.

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, “Stranger Tonight”

Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats website

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Rise Above Records on Thee Facebooks

Rise Above Records website

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