Dying onstage may not be the dream for most rock stars (unless your name is G.G. Allin, in which case you’re already dead anyways), but neither is it an active fear. For Giraffes frontman Aaron Lazar, however, it’s all too real a possibility. As the press kit for Prime Motivator notes (in what are surely the most sobering press kit notes of all time), Lazar “has a mysterious heart condition that causes him to literally drop dead without warning.” Verb tense aside, I wouldn’t normally discuss a musician’s medical history in the opening paragraph of a record review (unless your name is Britney Spears, in which case… oh, never mind), but so much of the Giraffes’ third full-length album is informed by Lazar’s health—from the Gray’s Anatomy-echoing liner notes to its thematic preoccupations—it’s impossible not to. Fortunately, Lazar and his bandmates—drummer Andrew Totolos, bassist Jens Carstensen, and guitarist Damien Paris—didn’t forget to rock on Prime Motivator.
The band, as on their 2005 eponymous release/sorta-breakthrough, are heavily indebted to the riff-rock of ‘70s forebears Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, and Deep Purple, updated with a dash of California-era Mr. Bungle (these guys never met a Middle Eastern-ish sonic flourish they didn’t like) and stoner rock gods Queens of the Stone Age. It’s with no small irony that one keeps hearing QOTSA’s “Sick, Sick, Sick” and “I Think I Lost My Headache”, via Lazar’s Josh Homme-esque croon to Paris’ unceasing guitar assault, on tracks like “Smoke Machine” and the title track.
“You are speaking to a man who has injured himself”, confesses Lazar on “Medicaid Benefit Applique” (least rocking song title ever? Discuss). Elsewhere, the phrase “ticker checker” pops up on “Sickness (This Is)”, as does “I’ve got a pony in my ribcage / And she’s pulling me away”, and “I’ll say anything / Just give me some more medicine”. That bargaining and paranoia repeatedly manifests itself on Prime Motivator: “Clever Boy”‘s promise that “All I need is some time to get everything right”; the litany of near-death experiences in “Allergic to Magnets”; the ambulance rides that haunt the title track. Lazar’s fighting a lot of demons. Suddenly, other bands’ solipsistic bleatings of how hard it is to be a rock star seem even more petty compared to Lazar’s concerns. It makes for a harrowing, claustrophobic listen.
The rest of the band never lets up, either, and the irony of all this is that, at 54 minutes, Prime Motivator could stand to go under the knife itself. The band was guilty of this on The Giraffes as well: they’ve got a habit of not so much crafting songs as more cobbling repeated aphorisms (see above) to hard rock riffs and Frankensteining together five-plus-minute suites of interchangeable parts. It sounds strong and polished, though, and with a little tightening, these guys will have lightning in a bottle.
Death, disease, and pain have long been hard rock and heavy metal staples, but to accurately and honestly depict personal mortality is a much rarer find. Here’s hoping Lazar and the Giraffes stick around for a good long while.