[18 May 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For all the attention that recent albums by young stoner/doom metal bands like Early Man and The Sword have been receiving, it was only a matter of time until a savvy young band, with a powerful label and well-known producer behind them, combined the brute force of those Sabbatherian power chords with more mainstream-friendly elements, and Wolfmother, already the biggest rock band in Australia, are primed to make a serious dent in North America this summer. A formidable live act that is used to playing to large crowds on the other side of the world (performing in front of tens of thousands at Sydney’s Big Day Out this past January), the trio hit the small clubs in the States this past spring, quickly attracting the attention of indie rock fans who are constantly in search of the Best Bands Nobody Else Has Heard of Yet, and blogs and message boards were soon abuzz with glowing reviews. Now, with their inclusion on the cool metal compilation Invaders, live television performances, a single doing very well on modern rock radio, and very strong early sales, Wolfmother brilliantly have all their bases covered, attracting the hipsters, the metal fans, the pop enthusiasts, and the classic rockers. All this fuss over an album that’s deceptively simple.
You might have taken a peek at the top of this article and noticed the rather generous rating, but it must be made clear that there is absolutely nothing original about Wolfmother whatsoever. It’s little more than regular, meat-and-potatoes rock ‘n’ roll, but what this record has over other flaccid Down Under garage rock exports like Jet, the Datsuns, the Vines, and the D4 is songwriting skill, charisma, and most importantly, muscle. The skinny, afro-sporting Andrew Stockdale might be the focal point, with his Gibson SG and his cock rock wails that sounds like a cross between Robert Plant and Cedric Bixler-Zavala, but it’s the mighty rhythm section of bassist Chris Ross and Myles Heskett that keeps Wolfmother’s music firmly grounded in that massive vintage metal sound. Even when there’s a slip, such as the ludicrous White Stripes rip-off on “Apple Tree”, the song is rescued by a huge, plodding bridge that’s anchored by Ross’s distorted notes and Heskett’s thudding toms.
That balance of primal, brute force and catchy-as-all-get-out melodies is what holds our interest on an album that, in all honesty, goes on far longer than it has any right to. “Dimension” sounds like uninspired garage rock at first, but quickly kicks into gear a grooving riff, and then downshifts into an ear-splitting breakdown, all in the course of 65 seconds, like the Count Five giving way to Hawkwind and then Black Sabbath. The raucous “Woman” is unabashedly goofy (“She’s a woman, you know what I mean / You better listen, listen to me / She’s gonna set you free”), but cruises with a manic, libidinous energy that’s not unlike Uriah Heep’s “Easy Living” (right down to Ross’s touches of organ). “Joker & the Thief” opens with a Deep Purple style intro of guitar noodling and ominous Hammond B3, its chugging verses punctuated nicely by psychedelic-tinged choruses.
For all the strengths of the more straightforward songs, it’s the more adventurous fare on the album that hints at Wolfmother’s true strengths. “Colossal” is everything the title indicates, a monolithic yet quixotic tune that hearkens back to Sabbath’s Vol. 4, the spaciousness of the song allowing Stockdale’s versatile tenor voice to dominate. “Tales” (renamed from the original, giggle-inducing “Tales from the Forest of Gnomes” on the Australian release) is a welcome touch of weirdness, with its Beatlesque mellotron and surreal fantasy rock jig chorus, while “Witchcraft” is interrupted by an inexplicable jazz flute solo, as if Ron Burgundy decided to join Led Zeppelin onstage. “Mind’s Eye” is a terrific epic ballad in the grand tradition of ‘70s arena rock, impeccably pulling off that quiet-loud-quite-loud formula perfected by the Scorpions, Judas Priest, and Rainbow 30 years ago, but it’s “White Unicorn” that emerges as the clear winner on the entire disc, neatly marrying the hippy-dippy sentiment of Robert Plant and the monstrous chords of Tony Iommi before briefly returning to the acid rock sounds of Hawkwind again.
It’s unoriginal and ultimately irrelevant, but it’s fun, and the fact that Wolfmother isn’t afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve and do so with a straight face while singing about unicorns and gnomes, as opposed to the constant winking of the Darkness, makes this a slice of retro-rawk that is impossible to resist. Whether they can maintain the attention of the fickle mainstream music fans past 2006 remains to be seen, but at the very least, for a fleeting moment, they brought the tired sounds of mainstream rock back to life in a way that “Danni California” and “World Wide Suicide” never could.