Album Review

Brian Ahnmark

Beat the Devil's Tattoo is like a fine cigar.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club had to start over to move forward.

Upon the release of their self-titled debut album in 2001, BRMC was inappropriately bunched with the rock revivalist movement. In reality, their fuzzed-out anthems bore little resemblance to the accessibility of “peers” such as the Strokes and Hives.

So BRMC forged on under the radar. A second album, Take Them On, On Your Own, was chock-full of tidy rock songs. But it didn't sell, and the band was dropped by Virgin Records. That experience inspired Howl, a stunning Americana-tinged masterpiece. But where to go from there? Baby 81 was an admittedly rushed affair, its overall disjointed feel coinciding with strife within the ranks. Founding drummer Nick Jago was fired and/or left the band to pursue a solo career; The Effects of 333, an independent instrumental release, was largely ignored by critics and fans alike; and BRMC was suddenly in limbo.

Enter Leah Shapiro, drummer of The Raveonettes. After filling in for Jago on tour, Shapiro was officially welcomed into BRMC. Faced with yet another career crossroads, the band cleared the slate and essentially started back at square one. Bassist Robert Levon Been and guitarist Peter Hayes shacked up with Shapiro at a friend's house in Philadelphia (the same house where Howl was created) in the winter of 2008/09 to write new material. At the same time, this new lineup was forced to find its footing as a creative unit, essentially while couch surfing and broke.

No pressure there.

Beat the Devil's Tattoo, the result of these sessions, is a cohesive, brooding monster. The album title refers to an incessant, obsessive, uncontrollable rhythmic tapping – of the fingers or the foot, for example, as though one is possessed by evil spirits. No phrase could more fittingly encapsulate the overall vibe of this record. Tempos creep, a comatose heartbeat anchored by Shapiro's sledgehammer beats and Been's chainsaw bass leads. Everything is swathed in reverb and distortion, broken only by Hayes' transcendent hooks elevating from the mire. There is virtually nothing immediately accessible upon the first listen, but to a discerning ear, surprises linger in every arrangement.

The album opener and title track sets an ominous tone. Footstomps, tambourine and acoustic guitars are shattered by Been's dive-bombing bass slides and a haunting vocal chant. The rest of the record is a cross-section of the band's career trajectory; droning epics such as “Bad Blood” hail back to the early days; the blistering “Conscience Killer” and “Mama Taught Me Better” embody the band's uptempo side; and the acoustic BRMC persona is represented by “Sweet Feeling” and “The Toll,” both of which beautifully interrupt the din. Mix in some dirty blues (“War Machine” and “River Styx”) and a piano ballad (“Long Way Down”), and this is one colorful sonic palette.

The best moments are hidden and test the listener's attention span. “Evol” feels like a plodding imitation of early BRMC, until Hayes bursts through the speakers with a soaring guitar lead three-and-a-half minutes into the song. Similarly, album closer “Half-State” could not possibly be any slower, and at 10-plus minutes in length, it may appear indulgent on the surface. But then Been carries the melody with an ascending pattern, Shapiro locks in a sexy groove, and the band erupts in post-chorus wah-wah breakdowns.

(Sidenote: Kudos to Shapiro for laying down a granite-heavy foundation throughout the record. How ironic that the addition of a woman would result in the band's percussion personnel actually growing a pair. Nick Jago will not be missed.)

Beat the Devil's Tattoo is like a fine cigar; slow-burning embers full of flavor, requiring patience and discerning taste. It's an exhausting trip with a rich payoff. Unfortunately, in today's chain-smoking music market of instant gratification, this record will probably do nothing to change BRMC's underdog status.

But just like cigars, BRMC is not for everyone.