Although it was overshadowed by John Peel’s untimely passing, the music world lost another one of the great discoverers and promoters in rock and roll when Bomp! Records founder Greg Shaw died last October. Shaw’s accomplishments, although not on the epic level of Peel’s, were, in some respects, more impressive. Peel had the luxury of wading through the whole world of rock and roll to find impressive and innovative groups to champion, Shaw limited his approach to the past and present world of garage rock. It is relatively easy to hear what differentiates, say, The Fall, from other bands, but Shaw had an ability to separate the genius from the mediocre in a genre where nearly every band sounds a lot like countless other bands. The Konks, one of the last bands Shaw signed for Bomp!, only cement Shaw’s uncanny ability to separate the wheat from the chaff in such a seemingly limited genre.
On first listen the Konks’ self-titled debut does little to distinguish itself from a plethora of other half-hour long doses of sleazy rock and roll: it’s all lo-fi guitar riffs and howling, intense vocals. The Konks, like other garage revivalists, take the garage rock tropes of the ‘60s and push it through the filter of the hardcore punk sound that these bands later influenced. It’s fun enough, as no rock and roll fan could deny, but what exactly makes them Bomp-worthy? The titles also do little to separate them from other similar bands: “Break My Back”, “Outta My Mind”, “Can’t Get Along With You”, “Out of My Mind” (wait, didn’t they already have a song called that?). Listening a little more closely, the second time around, it becomes clear that the Konks sound more straightforward than they actually are.
The instrumental breaks, for instance, show that the Konks are immensely talented musicians. Most garage rock bands pay little attention to musical ability, as it tends to distract from the essence of the songs. The Konks find a way to bury their talent in their songs, in strange instrumental breaks that play around with tempo changes and in their songs’ occasional angular riffs. When casual listeners focus on the dominating main riffs and the vocals, the rhythm section will subtly change the direction of the song. They make it obvious on a cover of Aerosmith’s “Let the Music Do the Talking” that ends the album. After reworking the song into a Hives-esque rave-up, the vocals drop off and the band takes the title’s suggestion and burns through a killer breakdown that recalls the proto-metal interludes on “Psychotic Reaction” and “Magic Carpet Ride”.
The Konks also distinguish themselves by incorporating a lot of influences in their songs. While many garage rock bands attempt to keep the exact same sound, attempting to tap into some sort of Platonic ideal of Rock, the Konks are not afraid to acknowledge that modern day garage rock is the distillation of countless influences. The Konks make it clear that its roots go farther than the bands featured on the original Nuggets compilation. On “29 Fingers”, a band anthem of sorts, they nick Johnny Rotten’s “and we don’t care” for the chorus, affirming the influence of punk rock on the garage rock revivalists. “Break My Back” shows the band in a bluesy mood, and the maracas-driven “Move & Shake” recalls not just Bo Diddley’s seminal singles but also the booze-hazed hypnotism of Exile on Main Street. “Honey” seems to be a genre onto itself, a bizarre little number where the Konks graft a queasy, slow psychedelic riff into a strange baptismal hymm. The results are stunning and puzzling at the same time.
Of course, the Konks can still flat out rock out. With the exception of “Honey”, every track on this album will get a crowd pumped up. They even seem to be getting better and crazier as the album progresses. The double-blast of “What I Came Here For” and “God Says” (as in, “God says run motherfucker!”), towards the end of the album, provides ample evidence that the Konks do not sacrifice any energy in their focus on keeping the album relatively diverse. The Konks are, at heart, a primal rock force. But that should be obvious, after all, Greg Shaw liked them.