Every once in awhile, a band with a truly unique sound comes along. A configuration of instrumentation and vocals unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. And sometimes that can be a very, very bad thing. Watchers and their latest release, Vampire Driver are a prime example of the above, posing as the bastard offspring of Jane’s Addiction and the Talking Heads, only minus the melody and innovation of either band.
Most of Vampire Driver‘s songs are built around sparse, plunking basslines consisting of a three-note maximum and range from bad to just merely unremarkable. While complexity in the structure of a song isn’t always an artistic boon, there are times where over-simplification fails to give music any depth. While the Ramones were proponents of simple, three-chord melodies, their lyrics mirrored the straight-forward approach of their music. Watchers, on the other hand, attempt improvisational complexity only to come up with barren backdrops to abstractly crafted lyrical offerings.
Things start out catchy enough, musically at least, with “Chess Champion”. The machine-gun rattle of the group’s rhythm section and lo-fi-rendered guitars, while not exactly melodic, lay down a thumping groove that burrows inside your brain. This formula wears thin later on, considering this is Watchers’ standard M.O. with little deviation during the course of the disc. Quite frankly, the band comes off a mite pretentious, trying to hard to be overly indie (Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as “overly indie”.) and what seem to be deliberately obtuse lyrics. That is, when the lyrics can actually be understood thanks to the lo-fi mixing and singer/keyboardist Michael Guarrine’s vocals that swing from falsetto to garden variety caterwauling.
There are moments where Guarrine puts the falsetto to bed, particularly with the pseudo-blues of “Young One”, featuring a chorus consisting of a singular, droning, baritone and the repetition of the phrase of “Aaaaah-aaah!” It’s like Open Mike Night at the coffee house gone hideously wrong, with some mochachino miscreant slipping a heady dose of Valium into the espresso machine.
Then comes the part of the album where Watchers decide to show off their spelling prowess, from “20 Cycles”, in which they spell out “T-I-M-E” repeatedly as the track’s chorus, Guarrine defaulting back to his high-pitched style, to “S.I.S.I.A.I.”, which features some solid drumming by Watchers’ Jes Birch, blending an almost industrial clanging alongside kit-concocted beats. Cowbell and borderline beatboxing blend on the track next door to more traditional percussion, the beat pounding out a head-bobbing melody. One of the instances where Watchers’ improv approach works, the band dragged a cornucopia of make-shift instruments into the studio ranging from PVC piping to traffic cones to experiment with sounds. Without a doubt, Birch’s ingenuity and skill on the skins is the highlight of Vampire Driver and clearly the best part of Watchers’ sound. His rapid pacing and scattering patterns across the songs is spontaneous, yet polished and stamped with the hallmark of powerful improv drumming.
Several odd mergers of influences filter through on the album. Sounding like early Cure with its midtone jangling, “Mercenary Birds” offers a chugging, swinging vibe against staccato vocals. “I Don’t Want It” features a James Bond intro sound style, the walking bassline grooving along happily throughout. While it’s a fun touch, that doesn’t refute evidence of what smacks of Watchers trying to hard to get their indie cred card stamped by closing the song out with a lengthy series of diminishing bell sounds, prolonging the track’s inevitable end.
Vampire Driver picks up with the standout track “Out of the Blocks”. The thin, struggling, and delicate vocals work surprisingly well on the churning melody, particularly when meshed with a certain old-school, ‘80s art pop sensibility. It would seem that Watchers have hit their stride and found a voice on the album on “Out of the Blocks” and “Rabble Fire Ants”, attempting to incorporate some reggae and cowbell into the mix. Their artistic improv license works well on “Science Theme”, built around the whirring synthesizer buzz of the band’s two keyboardists—Guarrine (a much better keyboardist than frontman) and Damien Thompson—floating over drum beats.
Just when you think the worst is over and Vampire Driver is headed for an upswing, Watchers release the hounds with the plainly awful “We Got a Witness”. Attempting to use single-object nouns repeated in rapid succession in an attempt to create abstract verbal imagery against a cacophony of whinging guitar sounds, the track misses the bar on the artistic style they were going for. Moreover, “We Got a Witness” underscores the limitations of the guitar tricks recycled throughout the album, offering one too many electric, frantically scrabbling semi-screeches.
The band closes out the album with the uber-improvisational “Crumbs”, featuring No Wave saxophonist and pioneer James Chance and an endless, trilling squeal of saxophone. Chance manages to get in a few good horn grunts and runs amidst what sounds like a junior high school band camp participant having a particularly raucous practice session, hitting misnotes alongside Watchers’ group-jam. While Chance may be a legend among the No Wave scene, it’s certainly an acquired taste, relying upon more of an “in-the-moment” method rather than a focus on melody.
While neo-No Wave and noise may be an acquired taste, Watchers attempt to dip a toe in the waters of several musical styles, none of which really work on the disc, particularly given their leanings towards over-improvisation and art-rock that tries to hard instead of just going with the flow. With few exceptions, the spontaneity on Vampire Driver seems rehearsed, from lyrics that are too conceptual for anyone but those on the inside of the joke to get, to way, way out arrangements. Even if you set out with high hopes, sometimes you just head back empty-handed.