Lupine Howl are over the top. Their moniker is peculiar, severe; their album titles, obscure and potentially off-putting (The Carnivorous Lunar Activities of Lupine Howl, anyone?). It’s as if, at every moment, they’re striving for extremes—total excellence or utter shit, gold medal or the piss-stinking gutter. Ever since the band formed after Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce went on a firing spree in 1999, guitarist Mike Mooney and bassist Sean Cook have been creating musical life from destruction—or, perhaps, destroying the only things in music worth living for. (On their debut, they did this with ex-Spiritualized drummer Damon Reece, though John Mattock appears on their latest offering.)
True to form, The Bar at the End of the World is an all or nothing album. From its first moment, it is bombastic, pompous, obscure to the point of disturbing. Through and through, it hits dead on and completely misses, sometimes doing both in the same stroke. These wild oscillations of likeability, from any other artist, might be understood as crazed or indicative of stellar, but untamed, talent; from Lupine Howl, it’s just par for the course. This is a band that wants you to feel something every time—whether ecstasy or nausea, excitement or boredom.
Opening the album is the hyperbolic “A Grave to Go To”, a blood-thick, guitar-heavy blazer that showcases Lupine Howl’s penchant for psych-influenced, soulful rock. Starting like a runner out of the gate, the guitars unfurl in spooky riffs followed by equally dark bass lines. Cook spits out the lyrics like they’re poisoned venom—the story told about a missing girl whose is suspected to be an unidentified corpse. Sure, the topic’s a bit gross, but the song is fantastic—huge, confident, ambitious.
After this searing beginning, the album slows down considerably, never again catching the momentum of “A Grave to Go To” and often deadening into a dirge. The immediately following “Don’t Lose Your Head” is a spaced-out shuffle, sounding as blitzed as the narration: “I never really had much money / But what I did have I spent on cocaine / I may be lost but I’m not worried / Ain’t life strange”. It’s quite a letdown from the previous number, and not just because the tempo has been emasculated—the pace also shows off the hollow, sometimes painfully awful, lyrics. It’s the kind of song that might sound so deep to someone who, as Cook sings, is “so high”. The clever closing lyric (“We all do things we hate to get things we don’t need”) hardly makes up for what is just a dull song.
The rest of the album stays on the slow side, with mixed degrees of success. “The Pursuit of Pleasure” is a sultry, sticky mess of a song, its opening bars mimicking what you might expect to hear as you step foot into a sleazy bordello somewhere off the interstate. It stays that way until the climactic, hell-on-wheels chorus: “I just wanna / Control my lover” slithering seductively out of Cook’s mouth, the volume overcharged, the drums cacophonous and gigantic. It’s not musical rocket science, but it is gorgeously drenching melodrama. It ends, with splendid pomp, on Cook wailing, “I wanna feel alive”, atop ballistic six-string fury. But when this theater translates into something less charged, it just sounds silly. Like the next song: “Gravity’s Pull”. Barren guitar work and flabby strings render the song a flaccid, vacant lullaby.
One thing I can say for Lupine Howl—they always try. As much as they work within well-tred Britrock traditions, their haunted outlook on life tarts up even the most standard of melodies. Granted, it doesn’t always work, but this reviewer remains faithful that someday, one of their albums will stun. Either that, or scare the hell out of you.