If the opening lines of Universal Indians’ first track — “Freedom Ritual” — sound in all their high and lonesome grace like an incantation, it’s because they are. There is something tribal about this record, like the listener happened upon these people in a forest clearing and listened surreptitiously as they wailed and cried with an unabashed joy that isn’t of our world.
It is easy for one to make assumptions about Dark Meat. They are from Athens, GA, share a label with Circulatory System and Olivia Tremor Control, have been name dropped by Elf Power. Surely they are of the E6 ilk — spurting forth Wilsonian pop laced with six-part harmonies and prescriptive psychedelics — right? Wrong.
Well then, one might say, what about these song titles: “Well, Fuck You Then”? “Angel of Meth”? “Assholes for Eyeballs”? “There is a Retard on Acid Holding a Hammer to Your Brain?” Isn’t this just another overly crass rock band into their own ability to curse and reference drugs? The poor man’s Hold Steady, perhaps? Wrong again.
If Dark Meat are about anything, it is defying such easy description. They are, if the number of musicians credited on the album (twenty-three) means anything, a collective. And yet, unlike other collectives (see: Animal), they are not interested in cerebral or conceptual music. Universal Indians is nothing if not raucous. It is also (Lucero, cover your ears) the best southern rock album you’re likely to hear this year.
That is not to say this is “southern rock” (Lucero, now uncover your ears), but it is rock, and most assuredly southern. These songs are sweaty and loud. Guitar riffs are jagged, coated in sawdust. The horn section chugs along like a freight train. The backing vocals reach punch-you-in-the-gut gospel heights. Songs like “Dead Man” burn slow with a Kentucky Bourbon sway, while “One More Trip” could be the opening number to a Vegas Review, if it were held in, say, Fayetteville. This stuff is loud and coarse and Dark Meat rides loose, as one can imagine with all these players. Over it all, Jim McHugh wails like that Arcade Fire guy would if he took the right (or wrong, depending) pills before a show. When all this comes together on record — the wailed guitars, the churning drums, backing vocals, horn sections, a mish-mash of other instruments — it’s easy to dismiss Dark Meat as chaotic. But, in the liner notes, Author Michael Parker rightly warns against this. It takes a precision to bring the listener this close to implosion and still keep it all intact.
And if the music itself weren’t great enough to warrant your unbridled joy, the lyrics are just as good. Take opener “Freedom Ritual” again. It is, in many ways, a statement of principals for the record. It tells the tale of a town invaded by a band who, at least momentarily, shows the town true light. The narrator of the song is trying to forget a woman while all this goes on, and does for a moment, until the band leaves town:
As I pass by the gauntlets of tornapart fields,
Dead wells by the wayside and jettisoned shields,
I’ll search for the sound, though it’s never I’ll find,
And I’ll die poor and hopeful with one color of mind.
The album is full of this beautiful desperation, even in the more racy titles listed above. The album closes with “There is a Retard…” and somewhere in the swell of instruments, the refrain sounds: “It’s your life and you hate it, but it’s your life just the same.” The song, with what seems like all 23 players going at once, is a (again, nearly) cacophonic ending, which celebrates as much as it maligns. The perfect ending to a sweet ritual.
The album is not without its faults. The production can at times make all these instruments feel crowded. The middle of “Three Eyes Open” goes on a little too long, as happens once or twice on this record where ambition slips and dips its toe in indulgence. The two tracks that come close to filler, “Birdsong + Footsteps, Flute Horn” and “Disintegrating Flowers” — which are made of snippets of conversation and a few notes here and there on horns, seem to be there merely to bolster the idea that the album was created organically. But that sort of explanatory moment isn’t needed here. This stuff sounds organic and meticulous and well-executed. Maybe those two songs are there to give the listener a much-needed rest. Take full advantage because when “Assholes for Eyeballs” comes on, make no mistake: Dark Meat are coming for you.