The stories of small rock bands against the mighty labels litter the pages of music history like so many bad parables. David and Goliath ad nauseam. You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again, and you won’t be surprised. No matter how frustrating it may be for the individual bands that go through it, it’s become the expectation.
So retelling the story in the case of Menthol seems kind of redundant. But it’s not. At least, although it may be the standard story, it does attest to the fact that Menthol was there first, on the cusp of things, before the same old song began to play. However, I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll retell the story one more time, just to set the record straight.
Menthol formed in the early 1990s in Illinois. Only, at the time, they were known as Mother. In that guise, they managed to produce one album of pop-rock for Mud Records, a Parasol subsidiary (this will become an important detail later). Drawing some notice from the big boys, the band signed with Capitol Records. Upon discovering that everyone and, well, their mother, had recorded under that name, the band changed its moniker to Menthol and released a self-titled album in 1995. Your basic blend of pop-rock with an alternative, guitar-heavy twist, the album was a modest success and Menthol set out to record the follow-up. However, when they finally produced Danger: Rock Science! in 1999, Capitol was going through some internal shake-ups, and was completely unresponsive to the new recording. Mostly because D:RS! was, well, new wave. Definitely not something a shaky label thought it could sell.
After going through the usual hassles of trying to buy back the masters, which Capitol refused, Menthol tried to negotiate some release of the disc. An initial split deal between Capitol and Hidden Agenda, another Parasol subsidiary, fell through. Finally, in utter frustration, the band decided to regroup in 2000 and re-record the same album. At less than 1% of the original cost. And, in a funny little twist, they managed to get the project picked up by Hidden Agenda after all.
The reason that this story is important to Menthol’s credibility is that Danger: Rock Science! is so heavily steeped in new wave aesthetics and sounds, that it initially comes across as being yet another contender in the current camp of retro-‘80s players. In actuality, this album was conceived and initially produced long before the emergence of electroklash, or the nod of mainstream pop backwards to the neon decade. When Menthol set out to originally record Danger: Rock Science!, it wasn’t an attempt to cash in on retro cool or create a new scene, it was simply an homage to the music that had initially influenced the members to play music, the music of their collective childhoods. As primary songwriter and vocalist Balthazar de Lay puts it, “the music my mom did aerobics to when I was in middle school!”
And it’s all here: Devo, Gary Numan, the Cars, New Order, maybe some Flesh for Lulu, some OMD, hell, even some Duran Duran. De Lay also claims that French new wave played a large role in the D: RS! sound, particularly that of Charles de Goal. The opening title track, “Danger: Rock Science!”, is so dripping in Devo, down to the choppy rhythm emulating “Girl U Want”, that you’re almost ready to put a flowerpot on your head in tribute. Of course, Menthol’s original guitar-driven pop-rock isn’t completely buried, it’s just accentuated by gloriously throw-back synthesizers. At times the sound resembles Garbage’s techno-rock, although filtered through Imperial Teen’s lighter touch. But this isn’t vamp or camp, necessarily, just a synth-pop sound that makes the term “Eurotrash” seem glamorous again. The Gary Numan style of “Future Shock”, the airy, OMD electronics of “Strange Living” (which even lyrically references the Cocteau Twins), the dance pop of “The New Recruits”, the almost-Alphaville of “Solitary Zone”—it’s the tonal time warp that all the crappy ‘80s radio shows can’t achieve.
But the thing that makes Danger: Rock Science! such a compelling album, such a stroke of brilliance, is that it sounds completely honest. This isn’t music made for irony, or hipster mockery, it’s truly from the heart. In fact, if you closed your eyes and pretended that the last fifteen years in music never happened, you’d never realize the break in continuity. Danger: Rock Science! sounds like it might have fallen directly out of a John Hughes movie soundtrack. Ferris lives! Not only does Menthol get the sounds right, they get the tone, the attitude, the feel right. At the height of postmodernism, the blank generation’s emptiness and plasticity created a beautiful, if vacuous, surface. These songs are so hook-heavy that they’re interminably catchy, even when they convey an ‘80s “death of everything” (“The New Recruits”), and they reflect that surface perfectly.
Because of that honesty, D: RS! is absolutely stunning, in a sunshiny, charming way. The first time I listened to the album I laughed, amused by the instant retro feel. The second time a grin was firmly in place, but my respect for the musicality was cemented when I realized it wasn’t all a gimmick. The third time through I was singing along to songs I already knew, grin still frozen on my face. That was with the CD on repeat, by the way. It was all I could do to stop listening to it and move on to something else. Because, despite being a solid slice of nostalgia, Danger: Rock Science! is like a breath of fresh air.
Okay, maybe you don’t like the ‘80s. Maybe you think new wave is a horrible aberration of soulless music. Maybe you think Capitol Records was entirely right in its decision. But maybe, just maybe, you’ll give Menthol a chance to charm you. You might be pleasantly, irredeemably surprised. Just remember, despite the spate of ‘80s imitators in recent times, Menthol was there first, and they did it right.
// Notes from the Road
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