Most musicians take pride in getting better at playing their instruments, as if virtuosity was the whole point of making music. That’s all well and good, but if that was the case Brain Salad Surgery would be hailed as the greatest accomplishment in rock and roll. Fortunately, the fellers in Brimstone Howl, after two solid slabs of garage goodness — 2007’s Guts of Steel and 2008’s We Came In Peace — realized they could keep getting better, or they could get better at sounding shittier. They’ve opted for the latter with Big Deal. What’s He Done Lately?, and as a result, they’ve delivered their first album that truly lives up to their up-from-the-bowels-of-hell name. Big Deal is a needle-in-the-red treat.
The band — John Ziegler (guitar, vocals), Nick Waggoner (guitar), Calvin Retzlaff (drums), and Austin Ulmer (bass) — know it too, proudly asserting in the brief liner notes that Big Deal is a “major episode of regression. Ha ha!” In an era when too many — outside of who, Billy Childish? Beatles cover bands? — is trying to push the ball forward, it’s almost a relief to hear a band acknowledge that 1965 is still a relevant touchstone for us here in the second decade of the 21st century.
So yeah, Brimstone Howl ain’t reinventing the wheel here, but they are celebrating rock ‘n’ roll with their everything-all-the-time ethos. “Last Time” unabashedly recalls the Del-Vetts’ classic Nugget “Last Time Around”. “Easter at the Lewises'” is a goofy country piss-take with origins in Exile on Main Street. Ziegler does his best Nick Cave impression (“Now I’ll find my way into the light!”) on “Elation”. The band eases up on the throttle long enough to cop a Byrds-y chime on “Final Dispatch” and the vaguely psychedelic “End of the Summer”, where the band offers an apt, if verbose, mission statement: “It’s alright to be Neanderthal, childish and atavistic, even a little wistful.” The foursome close with “La Loba”, which opens with some Jesus and Mary Chain fuzz (an inescapable comparison when a band trafficks in this sound) before spinning into a dusty Western celebration of (best I can tell) the 1965 Mexican horror film of the song title (aka She-Wolf). Hey, with the monoculture breathing down our collective neck, somebody’s gotta rep for trash culture. Brimstone Howl are out there living it up for all us sinners.
Of course, it helps that these guys are dead serious about having fun and rocking — Big Deal wouldn’t work as well as it does without their full commitment. Taken as too much of a lark and Brimstone Howl’s shtick falls into parody. Rock and roll has its ebbs and flows of popularity and cultural relevance, but as long as keepers of the flame like Brimstone Howl are around, the scene will be okay. And that’s a big deal.