Album Review: The Warlocks — Skull Worship

For many years now, it’s been a shortcut to hip/trendiness (for some, at least) to claim that your group sounds like the Velvet Underground. But merely echoing some of the sonic signatures of another group doesn’t guarantee any particular level of quality. The vibe, so to speak, is far more important.

And so it is that while The Warlocks haven’t (as far as I’m aware) made claims as to their own VU-ness, on their latest, Skull Worship, they capture the scuzzy, edge-of-mayhem ambiance that was such an integral part of those early Velvets LPs.

And they really don’t achieve this by sounding like Lou Reed and his pals, not at all. Instead the Warlocks sound is closer in style to 90s shoegaze icons like My Bloody Valentine. “Dead Generation” drones along, rarely varying from its one-chord riff. But somehow the intensity builds throughout the song, and it’s never monotonous. The slower, even more droning “Chameleon” features breathy, almost whiny vocals from guitarist/leader/songwriter/producer Bobby Hecksher. Here the bad stretches the tension across the song’s surface; newcomers to The Warlocks’ approach may wait impatiently for a second chord to be employed. They’re rewarded about two minutes in. But again, though the music and the vocals convey a sense of elegantly wasted ennui, the song itself is never boring.

It’s wroth noting that beyond Hecksher’s playing (which also includes keyboards and bass), the other two guitar players are credited with components integral to the group’s sound: JC Rees‘ credit specifically mentions “feedback,” and Earl V. Miller is credited for his work on “drone machine.”

The songs are all relatively short; only two songs approach the six-minute mark, and the entire album is over in an old-fashioned 40 minutes. But The Warlocks make the most of their time on Skull Worship. On “Endless Drops,” Chris DiPino‘s bass lays down a sinister groove, while one of the three guitarists layers fuzz-drenched sheets of guitar noise atop it. Only after the song slowly unfolds does George Serrano join in on thudding drums, adding a world-weary, downs-flavored vibe to the song. Then the vocals, then even more sheets of guitar noise. It’s lovely and grotesque all at once.

Acoustic guitar makes a relatively rare appearance on “Silver Plastic,” showing that – in the hands of experts, at least – droney, gauzy, downbeat music can be executed effectively without building the arrangement around electric guitar. The drone machine here sounds an awful lot like a cello, and the track’s overall feel is reminiscent in the best possible way of Radiohead circa The Bends. “He Looks Good in Space” makes extremely effective use of several keyboard textures (organ, string machine and analog-sounding arpeggiated synth), showing that The Warlocks’ three-guitar approach isn’t the only weapon in their sonic arsenal.

The melodic quotient on Skull Worship isn’t inordinately high, but then one wouldn’t expect it to be. And while all of the songs aren’t in the same key, there is a seamless feel to the album that makes its eight tracks seem to run together (if you don’t listen too closely). Certainly not the best choice for listeners looking for music to lift them out of an emotional funk, Skull Worship is highly effective in its shoegazeyness, and is recommended to fans of that style.

You may also enjoy: My review of The Warlocks’ 2010 release, Rise and Fall, E.P. And Rarities.

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