The Afghan Whigs were one of the first hard rocking alt-bands to join Sub Pop’s increasingly popular lineup of successful grunge artists, including Mudhoney, Soundgarden and of course Nirvana. Their career was rocky at times, but the band managed to make a dent in the explosion of scummy alt-rock, that dominated the 90’s rock radio scene. The Afghan Whigs style was not quite marketable enough to explode into superstardom like their labelmates: Afghan Whigs had a significant following, but their lack of a decidable radio hit kept them just under the radar for most people. Their biggest claim to fame was their 1993 album Gentlemen, which saw the band moving away from their harder grunge roots with a grander guitar sound, higher clarity and more insightful lyrics. Whigs made a name for themselves by combining hard rocking guitar with the vulnerability of a flawed frontman. On Gentlemen‘s “Debonair,” singer Greg Dulli hints at his personal downfall:
“Hear me now and don’t forget
I’m not the man my actions would suggest
This ain’t about regret
My conscious can’t be found.”
Much like Kurt Cobain, Dulli’s lyrics have a certain broken sadness that, while lacking some of Cobain’s sincerity and tragic frailty, still manage to be compelling. Yet after fifteen years of moderate success, Afghan Whigs called it quits in 2001.
Afghan Whigs surprised the music scene with a reunion tour in 2012 (though with bigger acts like Slowdive, Neutral Milk Hotel and My Bloody Valentine following suit, you’d be forgiven for not paying much attention). More shocking though was their announcement to release their first album in sixteen years. Do To The Beast contains much of what fans fell in love with in the grunge era: jangly guitars with a sleek crunch, Dulli’s signature smooth croon, and some precise drum work (a hard rock band that doesn’t drown out the chorus with smashing cymbals? Sign me up!). Dulli may be at a career best for vocals, sounding revitalized, vulnerable and a little gravelly (think more Future Islands than Nicklederp).
Do To The Beast avoids being a period piece by making bolder statements and amping up the band’s songwriting, offering a variety of styles that place these guys in between modern hard-rock and Mogwai-esque post-rock. “Parked Outside” kicks off the album with a guttural guitar explosion, proving that these guys have not lost any sense of grandeur. Dulli swoons in a chorus of “you’re gonna make me break down and cry,” delivered with so much conviction it avoids any potentially cheesy melodrama. “Algiers” is like a 90’s alt ballad played from a mountain top, chugging in with a crystal clear acoustic jam before the guitars bust in with unhinged glee. One thing is for sure: Afghan Whigs worship their guitars, and every crunchy lick and devastating minor progression sounds full of a fighting spirit. Afghan Whigs have the kind of confidence and precision of a band twenty years their junior, and it comes through clearly on Do to the Beast.
This album was recorded loud, because it was meant to be played very loud. Much like the new Pixies material, I get the sense that Do To The Beast is strictly a road record; these are songs meant to be played live, and the recordings follow suit with a faithful interpretation. This is by no means a lazy record, but it does detract from any cohesive themes tying it together. Then again, this is an alt band from the 90’s; you’d be hard pressed to find any “cohesive themes” on a Stone Temple Pilots album. These guys take their rock and roll seriously, and their brazen methods of versatility expand upon this in unexpected ways. “Can Rova” touches on the pop-folk appeal of Mumford or perhaps even The Head and the Heart, but the four-on-the-floor EDM finale is just subtle and fleeting enough to catch you off guard. “The Lottery” largely treads through previously conquered territory, but a cascading waterfall chorus casts off any doubts of redundancy. Nearly every song showcases the revamped guitar work of bassist John Curley and returning guitarist Mark Lanegan. Herein lies the record’s strengths: keeping the Whigs core sound intact while exploring new sonic possibilities, innovating in all of the right areas to keep the sound fresh and newly revealing. A few songs are merely passable, but Dulli’s tragically heroic vocals ensure this album’s relevance in the modern rock scene.
The Afghan Whigs are happy to just be playing shows again, and their critically acclaimed Coachella performance is a testament to their staying power. If Do to the Beast is simply a road record, then it sounds best blasting in a car stereo down the highway. For all the 90’s era reunions going on recently, the Afghan Whigs stare down their past demons with a grace and tact that puts them a neck above their competition. When Queens and Pixies rule today’s rock stages, the Whigs still prove themselves a fiercely capable dark horse.