In the introduction to the 2010 anthology The Best American Noir of the Century, famed noir writer James Ellroy writes: “The thrill of noir is the rush of moral forfeit and the abandonment to titillation ... . The overarching joy and lasting appeal of noir is that it makes doom fun.”
There is indeed something odd about the appeal of noir. I recently watched the excellent Criterion restoration of the bleak 1950’s noir Kiss Me Deadly, and afterwards I had to do a sort of double-take. Here was a movie filled with unlikeable characters (who in turn abuse the film’s only likeable characters), an unsettling mood, and a violent ending. It seems strange that anyone would enjoy such a film, yet I liked it a lot. Crazy as it is, there is an appeal to the darker side of art, and noir answers that appeal in spades when done well.
Despite noir’s propensity to remain in the dark side of human nature, the picture of the genre as presented on the British natives Alberteen’s debut album Metal Book is almost jolly. The cynical morality of noir is made to be almost a fun experience, something to smile at. The often deep explorations of gender relations, institutional corruption, and evil found in noir are here replaced by the genre’s superficial traits. The songs of Metal Book feature the genre’s hard-boiled lyricism (“The angels are starting to sigh in our dead language,” on “Our Dead Language”), tales of femme fatales (“A Girl and a Gun”), and depictions of doomed love (“The Butcher’s Daughter”). The band knows their noir, but, while Metal Book is obviously a loving tribute to the genre, it also doesn’t quite capture the darkness that defines it.
The best example of this comes on the lead single “A Girl and a Gun”. The song accurately describes the well-worn femme fatale archetype (“All you need to make a movie / Is a girl / And a gun”). The power of the femme fatale, however, is the darkness and mystery of her character. “A Girl and a Gun”, however, is anything but subtle; and though the song features a lot of minor chords, it certainly isn’t dark. The band is capable of creating an appropriately dark noir atmosphere: “Tamogotchi Landfill” (which could have well been a title for a Dashiell Hammett novel) effectively creates a menacing air, and it’s a shame that the album didn’t go more in that direction. The band has described their sonic as “rhythm and noir” (also the name of the band’s label), but while there’s plenty of the former they could have fared better on the latter. Instead of going for a unique take on noir, the band sticks with the comfortable, well-known conventions of the genre. Metal Book isn’t a bad album, but it certainly could have been a better one given the talent the band has.
And what talent there is. Metal Book is really a fun record to listen to; though it’s never truly substantive, it is an album with solid hooks and some great riffs. The smooth, sultry bass and guitar interplay on “The Stranger” create an effectively captivating mood, living up to the album’s noir sonic. “Waterloo Teeth” is a straight-up prog jam, featuring a killer electric organ. Interestingly enough, after the album’s fifth track, the album largely departs from the attempt to sound overtly noir. While it does represent an uneven tonal shift, there’s still some great material in the latter half of the record.
Metal Book can be summed up in four words: great concept, mediocre execution. The album’s obvious attempt to be a “noir rock” record isn’t well executed given both the perfunctory treatment of the noir archetypes and the half of the album that isn’t really noir. Had the band tried to draw out the sound on tracks like “Tamogotchi Landfill” and the title track, the album would have likely been better off. Nevertheless, the album does feature a lot of great material that will bring you back for more than just one listen. Given the inklings of solid songwriting on Metal Book, there’s much hope and room for improvement for this young British band.