Full Album Premiere & Review: Ruff Majik, Elektrik Ram

ruff majik elektrik ram

[Click play above to stream Ruff Majik’s Elektrik Ram in its entirety. Album is out tomorrow, April 28, through Mongrel Records and available to order here: https://orcd.co/elektrik_ram]

A career album, and the sort that not every career gets to feature. If you’ve never given Ruff Majik a shot, maybe because of their silly name, or someone told you they sound like Queens of the Stone Age — not unfair; never less so than now, if that’s to be the measure — or whatever, hearing Elektrik Ram is the reason you should. If you’ve dug in before and weren’t feeling it, you should try again now. I don’t want to get into superlatives, but both for Ruff Majik as a band — the four-piece led by guitarist/vocalist Johni Holiday and here boasting bassist Jimmy Glass, guitarist/backing vocalist Cowboy Bez and drummer Steven Bosman in the lineup, plus guests — and for South African heavy rock in general, it should be considered a landmark in addition to being one of 2023’s best albums. The latter designation pales.

There’s a narrative across the unflinchingly tight 11 songs/37 minutes that goes from kicking ass (“Hillbilly Fight Song”) and making love (“She’s Still a Goth”) to loss and grief (“Mourning Wood”), burnout and breakdown (“Delirium Tremors”) and the sense of exhaustion that goes with being in that state (“Cement Brain”), to a turnaround of momentary triumph (“Elektrik Ram” and “Queen of the Gorgons”) to the new low-low: bad-time self-destruction [“A Song About Drugs (With a Clever Title)], disaffection and disgust both (“Shangrilah Inc.”) on the way to being medicated, subdued, and wanting to die (“Chemically Humanized”).

It’s Holiday‘s story and he asserts the presence to tell it in a dynamic tour de force performance, in terms of using his voice across a range of modes, and of the arrangements and layers; the extra backup in “Hillbilly Fight Song,” the higher-register flourish as the verse of “Elektrik Ram” readies to turn to the chorus, the lower swagger in “Mourning Wood” to play up the goth, the robot voice that “wants that techno” in “Rave to the Grave,” the duet with Bez (who sings lead initially) in “Chemically Humanized,” on and on with these moments, sometimes on a more-than-one-per-song basis.

The instrumentation behind, sometimes in front, sometimes alongside him is no less impeccable in its detail. Handclaps in “Rave to the Grave” and the playfully bopping earlier-Beatles lead in the second half, a tambourine shaking lazily but steadily amid the hip-hop piano in the centerpiece “Cement Brain,” an actual box of small percussion instruments being jostled in “Shangrilah Inc.,” that god damned triangle in “Delirium Tremors” that is so correctly placed to be maddening? As addled and pained as so much of this record is, it is exquisite.

Ruff Majik have always been capable songwriters; it was what made The Devil’s Cattle (review here) a highlight of 2020 along with the elaborate and varied presentation. Elektrik Ram is more crafted than anything the band has released to-date, and that’s true in the shifts in tempo from the initial ragers to the mid-tempo “Cement Brain,” picking back up into “Elektrik Ram” and “Queen of the Gorgons” then on the downswing for “A Song About Drugs (With a Clever Title)” and marching the declining nod of “Shangilah Inc.” into the acoustic-led “Chemically Humanized.”

Where the last album found Holiday collaborating with producer/multi-instrumentalist Evert Snyman even to the degree of sharing lead vocal duties, Elektrik Ram internalizes the lessons of that methodology and moves forward on its own (Snyman was involved in some of this record but not nearly as much so as last time). Holiday, then, becomes a uniting factor. Individual songs go where they will, but between the sharpness of their execution, the storyline they’re making, and Holiday at the center of that storm — not at all the calm eye of a hurricane; he’s in it — there’s never a point at which Ruff Majik step so far out as to lose momentum or make a transition seem disjointed.

The samples are another tie together. Sometimes absurd and mostly from 1959’s The House on Haunted Hill — Vincent Price’s recognizable voice gives just the right amount of kitsch to tracks about addiction, paranoia and suicidal ideation — they speak either directly or not to the themes of the songs they’re about to start: “Hillbilly Fight Song,” “Cement Brain,” “Elektrik Ram,” “Queen of the Gorgons,” “Shangrilah Inc.” and “Chemically Humanized,” while adding to the persona of Elektrik Ram as a whole. Short, sometimes backed by piano as on “Cement Brain” — the timing of the drunkard’s croon first lyric “It’s all coming back to me slowly…” as the start of the song proper is an on-rhythm highlight of timing.

Elsewhere the work is done by the quick feedback of “She’s Still a Goth” or the right-in guitar line of “A Song About Drugs (With a Clever Title),” as no moment of Elektrik Ram seems unconsidered, while at the same time the album effectively and somewhat ironically recounts what it’s like to be an absolute mess in one’s own life. You could sit and do this all day. It’s everything here. Every level. All the detail, all the acuity. It’s not just one element, one stretch or one track, it’s not even just one player, though the perspective from which the songs are speaking is in Holiday‘s voice.

The way desert rock kind of blows wide after “Mourning Wood” starts the comedown after “Hillbilly Fight Song” and “She’s Still a Goth.” The sort of playful cynicism of including a voicemail from All This for Nothing‘s Paul Gioia as an executive in the “high-flying world of riff management” going on to list the cities that will be blown away by the riffs he’s just heard. All of these things become characters in the play that’s happening in the songs, the lyrics themselves not directly telling a narrative in the first-this-happened-then-this-happened sense, but stepping into new perspectives as they go — in the case of “Elektrik Ram,” that’s a shift from defeat to triumph in the span of a verse. Everything is what and where it needs to be. Even the “Delirium Tremors” triangle. You don’t like it, but you’re not supposed to like it. You’re supposed to pay attention.

ruff majik (Photo by Christelle Duvenage Photography)

Structures are spare to the point that “A Song About Drugs (With a Clever Title)” is twice through a verse and chorus and that’s it, and the likes of “Hillbilly Fight Song” isn’t much more than that with an instrumental break and another chorus after. Likewise, “She’s Still a Goth” is the same minus the last hook. The album pivots, smoothly. Every song has an identity of its own, and the story — music and lyrics — is told as much in the mood as in the actual content of the track in question. And it gets dark. “Rave to the Grave” is nigh on manic, and that’s a whole separate issue, but “Shangrilah Inc.” is looking around and justly bitter almost as a mask for the underlying misery that comes forward in “Chemically Humanized.”

And the lyrics that turn self-awareness into strength. Looking at a song like “Delirium Tremors” — the play on ‘delirium tremens’ emblematic of the wit throughout — there’s a distance between the narrative voice of the lyrics and the unfolding plot that feels literary. Holiday refers to poetry twice in “Chemically Humanized” and Edgar Allen Poe comes up (as he would) in “She’s Still a Goth,” and if these are clues to the mindset from which the lyrics were approached, that allows the material to move more deftly within and between pieces as well while signaling to the listener that the narrator is trustworthy. The sub-three-minute bang-bang-bang of “She’s Still a Goth” into “Mourning Wood” into “Rave to the Grave” after “Hillbilly Fight Song” launches at just over that same mark guides the audience across per-track changes of mood before slamming into “Delirium/I’m spinning out of control again…” and “I need an icepick lobotomy” in “Delirium Tremors.”

That’s a hard crash, existentially speaking. Elektrik Ram makes it fun so that the chorus of “You found me in a coma/Naked on the floor/You said ‘I’ve had enough’/I said I’d have one more/You probably should’ve cut me off/But I wouldn’t listen to you anyway,” becomes a sing-along as much as a confession acknowledging the narcissism of addiction — that “you” is accusatory; it casts blame even if the next line redirects that blame toward the self. The first chorus on this album could not possibly be more swaggering as Holiday in a faux-Southern accent intones, “Sit your ass down when grown folks is talking,” heading into, “And I don’t give a fuck/About the mess I made/And I don’t recall/Asking you a god damned thing.” Meanwhile, at the other end, the last lyric in “Chemically Humanized,” pleading, is “I wish I was dead.”

It is a remarkable journey between those two ends, meeting inwardly- and outwardly-imposed difficult times with cleverness, honesty and humor, unflinching as that examination is supposed to be in “Cement Brain” for the chorus lines, “Please don’t let me fall off/The fucking wagon,” and perhaps most importantly, sounding no less sincere in that than in the wife-worship of “Queen of the Gorgons” or the allusion to poker in “A Song About Drugs (With a Clever Title)” that asks, “Are you all in?/In on the joke,” after references to alcohol and other abuse, admonitions of choking on pride, and so on. The second verse of “A Song About Drugs (With a Clever Title)” does some particularly heavy lifting: “I told you/I need to know/I need to see where this tunnel goes/Will there be a light?/Probably/There’ll be a light/Just not for me.” Ditto “Plug me out/Plug me back in/See if that does anything” from the start of “Elektrik Ram.”

However embellished those lines might be for the purpose of telling the story, that doesn’t make it less true as an experience, and Elektrik Ram is brave in laying it out in plain-but-not-stale terms while also serving as Ruff Majik‘s boldest sonic reach yet. Considerations of genre are by no means absent, but “Cement Brain,” “Shangrilah Inc.,” “Chemically Humanized,” even “Delirium Tremors” with its thematic confusion and disorder, careening groove, are mindful in their rule-breaking, and the album accordingly transcends style while pushing the band forward into new, individualized ground for the band.

I said as much at the outset, but it’s not the kind of accomplishment that happens every year or to every act, and there is not one song among the 11 included that couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be a single. Each serves to enhance the whole while offering something of its own musically, vocally, thematically, to stand out from the rest. Even “She’s Still a Goth” and “Queen of the Gorgons,” which are close in sound and substance and perhaps separated so as to mirror each other on sides A and B of the vinyl, feel purposeful in that and follow different structures. Not unflawed, Elektrik Ram is nonetheless flawless in being what it needs to be, and it places Ruff Majik even more at the forefront of South African heavy, which is a spot that suits them well. Recommended.

[This review contains factual information gleaned in this interview, which is also posted here.]

Ruff Majik, Interview with Johni Holiday, March 17, 2023

Ruff Majik website

Ruff Majik on Facebook

Ruff Majik on Instagram

Mongrel Records website

Mongrel Records on Facebook

Mongrel Records on Instagram

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2 Responses to “Full Album Premiere & Review: Ruff Majik, Elektrik Ram

  1. Mark says:

    Reminds me (vocals especially but not solely) of Supergrass.

  2. […] “A career album, and the sort that not every career gets to feature.” – The Obelisk […]

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