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Drenge – Undertow

  • Written by  David Lownds

Undertow’s first few tracks are seemingly something of a departure, heavy with synthesizers or guitar effects – it is hard to tell which of those are in use – and it sounds like the evil, less glamorous twin of The Killers’ debut, Hot Fuss. While the initial songs of Undertow are somewhat powerful and upbeat musically – though not in terms of mood – the fourth track, ‘We Can Do What We Want’, stands out as having an especially big kick to it, like a particularly large chili pepper that you discover while partway through a spicy meal. That song arguably injects anxiety and craziness, and thus, in a way, energy or life, into the old concept of declaring one’s autonomy, an idea that previously appeared on tracks like The Animals’ ‘It’s My Life’. Such energy is seen not only in lyrics but in the music as well, primarily in the drums, but in all instruments on that song to some degree, including the guitar.

Much of the guitar sound on Undertow is reminiscent of those of Foo FightersOne by One because of the shine of that 2002 album. Gloss is mixed, both there and here, with heavier material. This is done in both cases to great effect, and is something which is especially strong on this album since the weightier music on Undertow is murky rather than simply crunchy. An Eastern flavouring is present in the guitar line of ‘Side By Side’, while the great riff found in ‘The Snake’ reminds one of how Drenge were so great on their first album. The album features a grand set of sonic weapons which capture the listener. They are almost good enough to rival Nirvana’s cannon of riffs, and they match Manchester band Nine Black Alps’ debut. Furthermore, there is an excellent moment near the end of the final track, a great example of how to build up anticipation and tension through music, even if the song’s climax is a slight let-down.

Guitar work and effects are not the only things here that are worthy of comment. Moments of animation and changes in dynamics make the no-nonsense vocals more than one-dimensional, and yet they seem to be deficient in something. There is not as much energy and rage as the great punk bands, nor is there the pure singing talent possessed by the best contestants on a show like The Voice, or the otherworldly brilliance of Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant. Lyrically there is too much repetition and not enough excellence. That said, some of the album’s lyrical ideas are interesting, such as parts of the narrative of ‘Standing in the Cold’ and this line from ‘Never Awake’: “Like a slave of the suburbs/I’m addicted to buying more stuff.” However, the lyrics are not as hard-hitting as the drums.

Additionally there is more room for improvement. There arguably needs to be greater variety in the way that songs are ended and how they generally sound, especially in song textures. A suggestion would be to expand on or experiment with the makeup of ‘Standing in the Cold’. The album would also be improved by more prominent bass work to compliment the great material that utilises the six-string. Rather than catching one’s eye, on this collection the bass seems to scarcely raise its head above the general noise, and when it does it appears to do nothing amazing with the exception one of the riffs on ‘Side By Side’. Either that is true, or the notes the bassist plays are so high-pitched or similar to the six-string that one does not realise that they are played on a bass. To be fair, bass guitars often get buried in the mix, but that does not mean that the listener should not demand better.

Overall, there is a “progressive grunge” feel to the album, even though it is still far from the territory of Rush or Pink Floyd, at least stylistically if not in terms of quality. The most obvious way it is arguably progressive is seen on the title track’s shifting time signatures, but the album’s complexity is also seen in more subtle ways, from various emotions reflected in ‘Standing in the Cold’ to the difficult rhythms of the drumming on ‘Side By Side’.Also, Undertow is musically somewhat reminiscent of Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, and yet it is less extreme. Also, towards its end, the album reminds one of Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head, especially the lyrics of that album’s title track. Thus, and in other ways, it seems evident that Drenge are not afraid to look to influences outside of the typical grunge/hard rock world. 

Undertow is available from Amazon and iTunes.

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