In hindsight, the Afghan Whigs were the quintessential ‘90s band. They established their guitar rock bona fides early on; a foot stuck in the muddy angst that kicked off the decade even made them a comfy fit on Sub Pop, at least for a while. Their true claim to the era, though, lies in the gradual evolution they underwent on the stunning 1993-1998 run of Gentlemen, Black Love, and 1965. Rock artists in 2014 can’t wait to namecheck their R&B and hip-hop influences, but this wasn’t the case when Greg Dulli and his band of white guys from Cincinnati started quoting Nas and recording reverent TLC covers. But even moreso than their admiration for contemporaries in other genres, what grounds the Whigs’ ‘90s work so strongly in that decade is how it increasingly functions as a patchwork of earlier decades — amoral men and women borrowed from ‘40s and ‘50s noir by way of neo-noir revivalists like James Ellroy and vintage ‘60s and ‘70s soul unironically integrated into the fiber of their songs. As Quentin Tarantino (or, to be more negative about it, Fredric Jameson) could tell you, little captures the ‘90s zeitgeist better than the previous 50 years of the 20th century forced into new-ish forms. The Afghan Whigs’ already-blurred sense of the past makes Do to the Beast a rare ‘90s reunion album that serves as a continuation of a timeless sound instead of a throwback.
It’s been 16 years since the band released 1965, but Do to the Beast is, in many respects, exactly the album you’d expect to follow. For all of its typically dark subject matter, 1965 lightened things up after the bleak, violent Black Love. Jealousy and murder took a backseat to sex and desire, and the band basically invented an unparalleled mix of fiery rock guitars and cool grooves. It also continued the band’s exploration of bigger arrangements, with guest musicians as important to the album’s sound as the four Whigs themselves. Do to the Beast returns to the guilt, jealousy, betrayal, and revenge that Dulli will seemingly never get out of his system, but the band’s interrupted run up toward maximalism continues. This is easily the most ornate and stylistically diverse of any Afghan Whigs album, from the expected wah-washed ‘70s funk to dreamy southwestern epics to 6/8 metallic blues. On “It Kills”, guest Van Hunt’s wordless vocals pull Dulli’s obsession (“It kills to watch you love another”) to the edge and let it teeter. “The Lottery” starts out with one of the Whigs’ more overt ‘70s borrows, a scratchy guitar part that Richard Roundtree could appreciate, but it lands on an unmistakably Whigsian chorus, decorated with a guitar effect cribbed from David Gilmour on Pete Townshend’s “Give Blood”.
Dulli changed his usual songwriting approach for Do to the Beast, saving the words for last, leading to some of the least precise lyrics that he’s ever written for either the Afghan Whigs or his other projects. Titles like “Matamoros” and “Algiers” serve as evocative placeholders, but the album’s action operates at a remove from earthly locations. Dulli goes strictly symbolic here, which is not to say the results are less dramatic than usual. The couple on Black Love‘s “Go to Town” planned to set the town ablaze and 1965 kicked off with the sound of a match being lit, but Do to the Beast is downright infernal. On the first line of opener “Parked Outside”, time doesn’t just erase the past, but incinerates it; on “Algiers”, Dulli croons “Dream your sins away / Sin your dreams away”; and these are just the edge of the ninth circle. The word “demon” comes up repeatedly, and when much-needed water arrives on “Lost in the Woods”, it’s a failed baptism, a dive from the levee that ends in loneliness and the sight of an ex-lover with someone else.
For all of its virtues (or compelling vices, this being an Afghan Whigs album, after all), skeptics of long-time-coming reunions will undoubtedly find the cracks if they’re intent on finding them. With Dulli and bassist John Curley the only original members, this is decidedly not the Afghan Whigs that made its classic albums. Although Whigs drummers came and went during their peak period, some fans will tell you that founding guitarist Rick McCollum is sorely missed here. Since guitars had already been sidelined on 1965, it’s difficult to say whether Do to the Beast would have sounded much the same with McCollum’s input or if it’s a tribute to his absence that Dulli had to recruit a huge roster of guest guitarists to replace him, including ex-Emeralds member Mark McGuire, Usher’s musical director Johnny “Natural” Najera, and Dulli’s Twilight Singers bandmates Dave Rosser and Jon Skibic. With Rosser, Skibic, and Twilight Singers multi-instrumentalist Rick Nelson and drummer Cully Symington filling out the band’s core lineup, another sticking point for cynics may be that this current incarnation of the Afghan Whigs is just Curley sitting in on a Twilight Singers session. True as this may be from a personnel standpoint, it has the focus and fire of a terrific Afghan Whigs album.
Perhaps it’s Curley’s presence or the expectations attached to the Afghan Whigs name or the semi-regular reunion shows that this lineup has been playing since 2011, but something’s dragged Dulli back to the fierce rock and soul of his best work. “If they’ve seen it all, show ’em something new,” he sings on “Parked Outside”. Conversely, it’s what’s old about this beast that makes it growl and roar.