Monday, April 25, 2016

Album Review: The 69 Eyes - Universal Monsters

The world is a small place, we notice, as our degree of connectivity has made reaching every corner of the globe as easy as ordering a pizza. We can get music from countries we didn't even know existed, and see and hear from musicians who we would have otherwise lived our entire lives never knowing. So yes, the world is smaller than is used to be, but it's still a massive place, and we cannot possibly know everything there is to know. Case in point; The 69 Eyes are here to release their eleventh studio album, and despite a career lasting more than twenty years, this is the first encounter I've ever had with them.

So what do we get from this album by the heroes of 'goth 'n roll'? Sadly, for the geek in me, the title is not a reference to an album written about the classic monsters of the early Universal Studios movies.

Instead, what The 69 Eyes deliver is an album of hard-charging, old-school rock and roll with tinges of Gothic flavor to give them a distinct flavor. Take the opening song, "Dolce Vita". The song opens up with a riff that is pure rock and roll, but as soon as the vocals start, you know you're getting something different. With a deep tone and a spoken cadence that is straight out of the Goth scene of yesteryear, the song rumbles along into a chorus that wonderfully blends dark attitude with catchy rock hooks.

The first single, "Jet Fighter Plane", takes things in a different direction, with some extra punk attitude thrown into the proceedings, mixed in with a piano line that completely undercuts the snarling vocal. It's actually a great bit of misdirection, because it keeps the song from rigidly adhering to expectations. Even if you thought you knew where the song was going, the little details like that are just enough to keep you guessing. That is the feeling I get from "Blackbird Pie", which twists and distorts the old nursery rhyme into a heavy, dramatic burst of Gothic flare. I'm not sure I've ever heard the story told with such a sinister voice, but it definitely fits the theme.

There's something unique about virtually every song here. "Lady Darkness" has a swinging rhythm that bounces along and reminds me of the pre-Ghost band Subvision, while in "Miss Pastis" we get what sounds like an accordion and a surf-rock riff. They're little details, but giving each song its own identity goes a long way to making sure that they are all memorable outside the context of the album. You can listen to the oddly familiar "Shallow Graves", followed by the Dio-esque drama of "Jerusalem" and know they're the same band, but they don't sound anything alike.

Of course, all of these little details wouldn't matter if the songs they color weren't good. Uniformly, the songs on "Universal Monsters" are damn solid. The energy and the hooks are both more subdued than I would usually go for in rock and roll, but that works with the tone the band maintains, and these songs are written in a way where they don't feel like they should be played and faster or heavier. If I could mangle a phrase, this is chilled-our rock music. You wouldn't use it as the soundtrack to a raging party, but it would be perfect for when the obnoxious guests have left, and you're having a late-night conversation that takes an unexpectedly deep turn.

So what we get with "Universal Monsters" is a record that understands how an album is supposed to be built, and offers us forty-six minutes of dark 'goth 'n roll' that does the moniker proud. Sure, I think the title was a missed opportunity for some blatant nostalgic storytelling, but The 69 Eyes don't need that to make a compelling album. "Universal Monsters" isn't my usual style, but it won me over.

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