The problem with artists who lean heavily on the past for musical influence is that it can sometimes sound overly reverential or derivative. It’s hard for a band to be taken seriously if they sound so much like their idols that it verges on self-parody. Fortunately, that’s never really been the case with the L.A.-based trio Dommengang. While their previous albums (2015’s Everybody’s Boogie and last year’s No Jail) lean comfortably yet uniquely on guitar-based blues rock, their latest album, No Keys, shows a band that is maturing into a leaner, smarter outfit.
No Keys cracks the code with a quantum leap forward in songwriting, as well as relying on few to no gimmicks. This is no-frills rock and roll, hammered out by guitarist/vocalist Dan “Sig” Wilson, bassist/vocalist Brian Markham, and drummer Adam Bulgasem. Recorded live in the studio with minimal overdubs, No Keys emphasizes a sound that combines the doom-laden metal of Black Sabbath with the blues-rock rawness of the Black Keys. Guitars are front and center, along with an innate yet understated nod to psychedelia. The album’s cover is oddly fitting – a cowboy hat-clad figure whose facial features can’t be seen against the gorgeous sunset behind him. The music is dark and mysterious, yet unmistakably cool.
The swirling, effects-laden guitar squall that opens the first track, “Sunny Day Flooding”, sets the scene. The band is off and running with a galloping beat and plenty of abstract lyric imagery (“Might see a rainbow / Might see a flood / Maybe a body falling from the sky”). But they’re able to shift seamlessly from that into the elastic tempo shifts of “Earth Blues”, with Wilson’s reverb-heavy guitar acting as a lodestar for the epic nature of the song.
Highlights are aplenty on No Keys. The swaggering “Stir the Sea” combines Markham’s relentless bass line with Wilson’s head-banging riffs, while the lyrics continue to remain ponderous and poetic: “Talk this over / Stir the sea / Flying too high to breathe / World is getting older / Still you’re loving me.” As instrumental epics go, “Acularias – Burke” takes plenty of cues from late 1960s-era Grateful Dead, with lots of gorgeous Jerry Garcia-inspired lead guitar lines and chunky Phil Lesh-like bass runs. But Dommengang builds on that woozy psychedelia by increasing the tempo and the overall urgency as the soloing becomes more intense, and the overall feel becomes less of a head trip and more of a sludgy pummeling.
While it might be hard to find anything on No Keys that resembles a traditional single, “Kudzu” comes close, with riffs and hooks buried under the thick layer of guitars and effects that stick in your brain long after the song is over. Not content to just give the listener an easy earworm, Dommengang presents “Kudzu” as a muscular musical workout (aided in large part by Bulgasem’s complex drum work) that also squeezes in plenty of deft compositional skill.
Produced by Tim Green (Joanna Newsom, Howlin’ Rain, Golden Void), No Keys is primarily the work of a trio, but a small coterie of guests help out, including Green’s guitar on the interlude-length “Blues Rot”, Camilla Saufley Mitchell’s vocals on the vaguely funky “Jerusalem Cricket” and Adam Parks’ restrained keyboard work on a handful of tracks.
There are plenty of artists excessively mining the past, turning loving tributes into derivative pap. Then there’s Dommengang. Naysayers may accuse them of being stuck in another decade, but with No Keys – clocking in at a classic single album length of 40 minutes – they work the riff-heavy blues-rock template to their advantage, creating a masterpiece of instantly lovable hard rock.