Gallon Drunk - The Soul of the Hour
Posted on Thursday, 13 March 2014 | No Comments
The long-standing cult icons go all avant-garage - and we like it.
If you stick around long enough, you can be sure that you will be forgotten. That Stewart Lee routine about "lazy dead Bill Hicks" and diminishing the quality of your obituary by continuing to work has a poignant truth to it: so excited are we by shiny new hype and the myth of icons who became so thanks to an early grave that those who just keep quietly, consistently dishing up the goods. Case in point? Well, the band under discussion today, Gallon Drunk. Emerging from the London underground circuit in the late eighties and early nineties, Gallon Drunk provided an anglicised take on the lavicious rockabilly of The Cramps and The Gun Club, as guitarist and frontman James Johnston put his own distinctive stamp on mutant blues and swamp rock. They were the immaculately dressed sound of Soho, and their early records like You, the Night...and the Music and From the Heart of Town were justly praised.
Unfortunately, they had the temerity to keep on going after the music press underwent a frightening case of monomania as they fed the Britpop circus of the mid-nineties. Fine albums like 2002's Fire Music went largely ignored beyond the fanbase, and the band went into frequent semi-hiatuses as Johnston's time was more occupied by work with Faust and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (with fellow long-serving band member Terry Edwards also busy providing saxophone work for Tindersticks, Tom Waits and many other luminaries). 2012's electrifying The Road Gets Darker From Here saw the band at their most explosive though, and with Gallon Drunk now Johnston's primary band once again, they've kept the fire burning on their latest The Soul of the Hour.
As a statement against irrelevance,it's hard to top The Soul of the Hour's opening track Before the Fire. Slowly lumbering into life on a bed of tom-tom rolls and piano riffs, it strikes a nuanced note that Gallon Drunk's music hasn't always managed, but retains a real dread about it - as if the band is slowly being pulled into that front cover, as if that paint is the disguise for some kind of terrible black hole inexorably pulling everything around it inside. It's almost four minutes in until the drum beat stiffens itself and locks itself in for the duration, another minute out of that for some smokey organs sounds and the rumble of bass (provided here by new recruit Leo Kurunis) is felt, and it's not until over the six minute mark that Johnston's wailing vocals are finally heard. It's the kind of big dramatic gesture that plenty of bands fancy themselves of being able to pull of, but that only a select few can. Gallon Drunk most assuredly can, and as the track finally climaxes with some strident horn blasts as provided Mr. Edwards, they've pulled off the cunning trick of sounding perfectly like Gallon Drunk whilst delivering a track without real precedent in the Gallon Drunk catalogue.
This isn't the only time on the record that a comparison with Tindersticks, Terry Edwards' other long-standing gig, feels apt. Gallon's Drunk has always been louder, more howling and desperate than the smooth, crumpled elegance that Nottingham's finest sons deal in, but be it coincidence or otherwise they've come up with their own take on the late-career masterpiece that Tindersticks conjured up with The Something Rain. That album saw a band who, whilst never releasing anything like a bad record, were unmistakeably flagging suddenly revitalise their sound with fresh production and arrangement ideas and successfully tap into a level of energy and inspiration that had seemed consigned to their past, providing themselves with a new way forward. Gallon Drunk's more recent output may not have betrayed any lapse in quality control, but given the extra-curricular pursuits of their two main members and the lengthy gaps between records, it felt like the band were in danger of becoming a footnote. As with The Something Rain though, this is an album that revitalises and redefines the Gallon Drunk sound without losing sight of their essence, and one whose quality deserves wider recognition.
Take the glorious, slow-motion roar of the title track then. A solemn, circling guitar riff leads us in, and again the band avoid the temptation to go straight for the garage jugular as usual but instead let the bad vibes simmer and grow, a genuine solemn malovence building and building until all hell really erupts in another fine Edwards horn showcase that soars whilst still prowling the gutter. The beautiful semi-ballad Dust in the Light follows, and as for this smokey beauty, let's say that the black hole of the first track leaves us deposited in some parallel universe where Jagger and Richards held their nerve after the mid-70s and kept true to the darkness rather than their other love, that filthy lucre: this is the kind of desolate, break-up-at-closing-time bawler they could have spent their later years perfecting, rather than touring the sports grounds of the world every few years to shit over their legacy anew. Even the more traditionally Gallon Drunk tracks on here, like fearsome closer The Speed of Fear or doomy lead single The Dumb Room have a palpable weight and urgency behind them. (It doesn't hurt that Johnston's dealing out pitch-perfect rock lyrics like "You're leaning over by the cigarette machine / Like the Empress of the Nile / And coughing in the corner / Is the chronicler of doom" either.)
The seven expansive, eerie tracks that comprise The Soul of the Hour could be mistaken for a mid-life crisis, an enforced slowing down as weightier concerns loom over the shoulder. While it's an album that does slow down their usual hectic tempo though, in truth it's the sound of a band on a creative roll, bouncing off from the energy of The Road Gets Darker From Here and sufficiently emboldened by it to shake up the formula and take on some new ideas. It's an engrossing and addictive record that seeps under the skin, luring you in to its oblique spell. If you want an example of how elemental rock can be made fresh, then this is it.