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Making rock and roll has always been a joyous affair for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. As much as they’d like to posture otherwise, they never quite had the cocksure f**k-em-all bearing of their beloved Jesus and Mary Chain. Though ironically, BRMC’s music was devoid of all of the Mary Chain’s syrupy, fuzzy warmness. Instead, BRMC were boneheaded rock and roll polemicists with a penchant for the woeful.
Except that this time woe had truly struck. With the passing of Michael Been, the band lost their sound technician and mentor, and bass-player Robert Levon Been lost a father. The band have always had a predilection for the superstitious, so an interest in spirits, however figurative, makes perfect sense. Paired with their taste for titles taken from famous works of prose, this album was christened Specter At The Feast.’
In Macbeth, the ghost of the title character’s friend, Banquo, appears to Macbeth and disrupts a lavish royal banquet that he is throwing to celebrate his own magnificence. Only the specter on this album is not there to enrage or startle. Instead, the spirit serves as guide and mentor, as a true North for Been, guitarist Peter Hayes and drummer Leah Shapiro.
The opening of Specter At The Feast is the kind of Sonic Youth-ish rainsticking that you hear in the interstices between segments on NPR. But what’s a BRMC album not garnished with aesthetics? Been’s jagged, anvil bass sound bounces in, and it’s quickly apparent that there is a band somewhere in the studio-engineered fog that this isn’t just a rehashed instrumental from 2008's dismal The Effects of 333.
The strong opener is followed by a cover of Let The Day Begin by The Call, the late Michael Been’s band. This is not an imitation or even an emulation, but rather an affirmation, an audible struggle for catharsis and that ever-elusive feeling we humans call closure.
The beautiful Returning follows, in which the drama of Been’s hollered words is transmuted by the sheer majesty of the music. That’s not to say the band isn’t capable of genuine rock profundity, because that would be a lie. In Fire Walker Been drawls ‘The crime is never what you steal / But what you leave behind’. This display of acuity continues the band’s most salient lyrical trend: transgression. This band needs righteous indignation like The Strokes need neurosis. On Specter At The Feast they finally admit it: ‘I need a rival’. The jig is up.
The band cues Hate The Taste and the similar-sounding Rival one after the other to create a welcome respite from the melancholy of the opening tracks. Though they sound almost exactly the same (to each other and to other Peter Hayes-led boogies from other albums such as Berlin) right down to the hook, which is delivered in Hayes’ ragged scream, you don’t complain. This recess is not only earned but highly enjoyable. Rival in particular will be a welcome addition to the heavy artillery of the band’s live set.
The raging noise continues with Teenage Disease. Though the lyrics are dead freight, ‘Surprise, you got a head full of lies / I’d rather die than be living like you / I’m a teenage disease; born, bred in desire / I’ve been sold to the sun, left out and denied’, what kind of cynic actually pays attention to the lyrics of a song that’s this much fun?
Specter At The Feast is an album that operates on hemispheres. Hayes’ songs allow the audience to enjoy the raucous primal appeal the band has always had, while Been is allowed to display his lyrical and vocal lambency and do the emotional grunt-work. It’s a solid album, and does as much justice to their fans as their 2001 debut, perhaps more.