With more bands jostling for attention than ever before, it’s tough to sell an emerging band by merely proclaiming how brilliant they are. Oh no: they have to stand in opposition to something, or provide the antidote to some perceived sickness. How, then, to approach the debut album by Glasgow trio The Amazing Snakeheads? Nothing you try to pin on them quite fits.
Having released their debut single last summer, they’ll be new to nearly everyone who hears ‘Amphetamine Ballads’ – but with members in their late ’20s and early ’30s don’t quite qualify for Wild Young Bucks status. The energy and malignancy streaked across these 10 songs feels ageless. Singer Dale Barclay sounds angry, sometimes to the point of hoarseness, but the social ills of this or any other day go uncommented on. Their music noisily solders together goth, rockabilly, blues and garage, and while slashing riffs and eerie unease can also found in the music of Eagulls, The Wytches and Beastmilk, this is no fly-by-night sound of 2014. You could even call it timeless.
For years after his time in Amazing Snakeheads antecedents The Birthday Party, Nick Cave exasperatedly tried to shed the übergoth tag conferred by demi-anthem ‘Release The Bats’. “It wasn’t ABOUT fuckin’ bats,” he’d grouse. The first song on ‘Amphetamine Ballads’ is called ‘I’m A Vampire’, and is not a detailed study of the vampiric lifestyle. Instead, its standout lyric, “She’s more beautiful than any woman I’ve met / And she fuckin’ knows it,” is a sentimental cousin of The Streets’ ‘Fit But You Know It’. With some of the biggest, hard rock riffs on the album, it’s a statement of intent.
It’s fair to say that The Amazing Snakeheads are not reinventing rock’n’roll, though. At most, they fashion somewhat unusual hybrids: armed with an extremely long chain, the repetitious thud of ‘Here It Comes Again’ links up Nirvana’s ‘School’ and ‘Rocket USA’ by Suicide. ‘Swamp Song’ seems indebted to the pots’n’pans clatter of Tom Waits; ‘Nighttime’ gestures towards the voodoo percussion wildness of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and overwhelmingly cribs from The Cramps. The trio, you suspect, are acutely aware of rock’n’roll cliché, but when Barclay gurgles “they say I’m bad, I’m bad to the bone,” he threatens to cross the line into self-parody. You’re not exactly Lemmy yet, chief.
Perhaps mindful of the punky chaos fans will have experienced at an Amazing Snakeheads live show, ‘Amphetamine Ballads’ is a willfully frontloaded album. The first four songs are all under four minutes, with the remaining six longer, stranger and more contemplative. ‘Where Is My Knife?’ touts gleaming guitars, march-to-your-doom drumbeats and handclaps in a malevolent, Gun Club-y take on the urban blues. There’s a saxophone on ‘Memories’, strong words softly spoken on ‘Heading For Heartbreak’ (it’s not just Barclay’s heavy Glaswegian accent that might have you recalling Arab Strap amid the jazz-tinged gloom) and abandonment of rock tropes on ‘Tiger By The Tail’: frail desert blues-y guitar, ghostly French chanson, slowness and lack of overt drama, but no rock. The way ‘Tiger…’ departs into the mist, quiet enough to be almost unheard, is the trio’s boldest move.
Overall, ‘Amphetamine Ballads’ showcases a group with good taste, to quote The Cramps, and the ability to cook up an adrenalised racket or a melancholy fog. There aren’t quite enough classic songs here to render their voice vital, but as long as boring bands exist, this kind of piss and vinegar will always be welcome.
- Director: Emily MacLaren, Stuart Evans
- Record label: Domino
- Release date: 14 Apr, 2014