Review & Track Premiere: Electric Citizen, Helltown

electric citizen helltown

[Click play above to stream ‘Lunch’ from Electric Citizen’s Helltown. Album is out Sept. 28 on RidingEasy Records.]

The stated intention behind Electric Citizen‘s third album for RidingEasy RecordsHelltown, is a turn from where the band was two years ago on their sophomore outing, Higher Time (review here). Likewise, Higher Time brought the Cincinnati four-piece to someplace their 2014 debut, Sateen (review here), hadn’t dared to go. Around a central core of memorable hooks and classic heavy rock riffing, Electric Citizen wove a vision of heavy glam, taking the riff-led fare of Sateen to someplace entirely bigger — in production value, in scope, in its unabashed poppiness. Helltown once more finds vocalist Laura Dolan, guitarist Ross Dolan, bassist Nick Vogelpohl and drummer Nate Wagner in an aesthetic pivot. While it would same to be driven by the same impulse toward refining their sound and trying to bring their songs to different levels of expression, etc., the manifestation is markedly different. Dolan‘s voice still commands the proceedings with pointed melodicism, and the guitar runs the instrumental charge beneath with classic swing from the rhythm section.

What’s different is largely down to presentation, and it’s one that finds Electric Citizen engaged in entirely rawer fare. Gone is the pop-ready sheen of Higher Time, and it’s been replaced by proto-metal tonality on the part of Dolan — as heard in the solo of second cut “Hide it in the Night,” as well as the riffs throughout — and Vogelpohl, as well as a decided lack of the keys/organ that featured so prominently last time out — “Father Time,” “New Earth” and “Mother’s Little Reject” notwithstanding — in favor of a more stripped down approach overall. Vocals are treated but not as many-layered, and the album as a whole is shorter, running nine songs and 32 minutes where the last one was 10 and 40. They largely stay away from following a punkish impulse — even centerpiece “Ripper,” which is definitely not a cover of Judas Priest‘s “The Ripper,” holds more to classic metal style — but the LP’s purpose is clearly to shoot for a more live sound, something that can be brought to life on stage, say, when the band tours as support for Monster Magnet in support of Helltown this Fall.

That’s not to say there isn’t any progressive edge to be found. Dolan as a guitarist is an intricate riffer and has been since he was doing his best mid/late-’70s Iommi on Sateen. As much as the smoothness and fluidity of Higher Time suited his style, he thrives here in showcasing his chemistry with Laura‘s vocals and with the righteous solidity of the bass and drums. Of course, a more barebones production style like this is no less an aesthetic choice than something hyper-elaborate, but the stylistic turn suits him and the rest of the band well, and would seem to have been something purposefully brought to the songwriting process. These tracks, in addition to being fewer in number, feel shorter and tighter in their structure. There are still drum transitions in “Lunch” and Dolan isn’t shy about taking a solo when called on to do so, but Helltown — named for the Cincinnati neighborhood the band calls home, as if to further telegraph the “back to their roots” sentiment at play — seems to pull back on some of the expanse that Electric Citizen made their own last time out, and it’s a meaner sound for it.

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Of course, what draws the work together is the craft behind it. “Father Time” is the longest cut on Helltown at 4:25, and its quiet, more gradual introduction would seem to be a departure from some of the immediacy held forth in songs like prior opening salvo of “Heart Attack,” “Hide it in the Night” or “Cold Blooded Blue,” all of which are into their first verse before the first 30 seconds are up. Pacing in general is a big part of what makes Helltown distinct in Electric Citizen‘s catalog. Sateen was dug into semi-garage doom shuffle, and so had a middling pace, and Higher Time followed suit with its more outwardly accessible fare. Helltown isn’t a Motörhead record or anything, but “Ripper,” “The Pawn,” “Heart Attack” have a quick pulse to be sure, and even as “New Earth” would seem to be a transitional moment into the closing duo of “Lunch” and “Mother’s Little Reject,” the momentum holds steady. And though “Lunch” digs into that eased-up tempo somewhat and “Mother’s Little Reject” starts out with organ-backed spoken word over a “War Pigs”-esque progression before igniting a finale-worthy bounce, the energy in Electric Citizen‘s delivery is unflinching.

If Helltown has a central message, that’s it. It’s enough of a declaration of who Electric Citizen are that part of me is surprised it isn’t self-titled. That identity can change, of course, and likely will if their three-to-date albums are anything to go by, but the statement in these tracks is clear and unmistakable. Whatever else Electric Citizen might do and wherever their sound might take them, they’re a heavy rock band at heart. Helltown is a performance-minded collection that would seem to be the result of some genuine soul-searching on the part of the band. It could well be they’ve found themselves as players and as a group and that whatever they do from here will be a hopeful step forward from where they currently are. Or it could be that this album, like the one before it, will spur an equal and almost-opposite reaction and the Electric Citizen will move in a different direction entirely. I like the fact that, four years and three records into their tenure as a band, I have no idea what to expect from them next.

Other than songwriting. That’s the key. It let them serve introductory notice on Sateen and it provided the foundation for the expanded-sound of Higher Time, and now it serves as the very core of being for Helltown. And if it wasn’t there, there’d be no hiding it. This is as stripped-down as Electric Citizen have gotten, and if they didn’t have the songs and didn’t have the performance and the vibe, it simply wouldn’t work. Fortunately, they do and it does. I won’t discount what each of the past two records did for their own accomplishments in their own contexts, but listening to Helltown, it very much seems to be marking a new level for Electric Citizen, and as they cull the most essential facets of their approach as a band, they emerge from that process stronger than ever and at their most vital.

Electric Citizen, “Hide it in the Night”

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