There’s a moment early in the Haunted Youth’s glorious seven-minute opus “Gone” that, in a saner world, should make every indie-rock fan above a certain age drop his pen in awe. As the layered keyboards, buzzing synths, and echoing guitars swirl round and round the ether, one realizes what a fabulous highway-driving song “Gone” is. Ever since the muscle-car era of “Sweet Emotion” or Bachman Turner Overdrive circa 1974, how many of those do we hear every day? Best of all, there are several more to enjoy on the Haunted Youth’s impressive debut, Dawn of the Freak.
The Haunted Youth is the ambitious English-language solo project of 29-year-old Belgian wunderkind Joachim Liebens. According to his Bandcamp bio, music is Liebens’ way of facing his past demons and writing them out of his system. “It’s therapy, a way of dealing with my existence,” he says. Old farts like myself are reflexively wary of comparative whippersnappers moaning about the malevolent vicissitudes of life and love – see Swift, Taylor. If you want to impress Xanax-popping, Drano-swilling Gen-Xers, try singing about divorce, mortgages, ailing elderly parents, and scrimping for college. But we digress. Dawn of the Freak is earning accolades pretty much everywhere except the US, and with good reason. This is an evocative and variegated record that veers from thoughtful to Autobahn-kinetic and back again, all while cultivating a sophisticated background mood ideal for bedroom moping, if that’s your thing.
Too vigorous in places for mere dream pop, Dawn sounds more like ‘dream rock’ as it revs up the Hemi engine on powerful tracks like “Broken” and “Gone”. For the second time in a month, we are compelled to name-check the prototypical 1999 indie highway anthem “17 Berlin” by My Favorite, whose euphoric exhaust trail still lingers two decades later. That wide-open ‘James Dean’ road high often proves impossible to replicate; even My Favorite themselves couldn’t manage it again. But Liebens does a fine job when he puts his mind to it. At least five times by my count – even if a couple of his more introspective creations play ‘pothole’ against the propulsive 0-60 energy he is obviously capable of.
The initial single “Teen Rebel” has gotten plenty of overseas press, though it’s one of the more subdued and repetitive tracks on Dawn. Suicidal dirge “I Feel Like Shit and I Wanna Die” is about as uplifting as it sounds, quite listenable in its own right but edging a tad close to soporific Field Mice drum-machine terrain. Heartfelt album finale “Fist in My Pocket” echoes classic Johnny Cash but still reinforces the general impression that Liebens’ songwriting prowess lies elsewhere. Best among the reflective numbers is the effortlessly haunting “House Arrest”, whose piercing lamentation “TAKE ME AWAY!” endures long after the song fades out. Then Liebens brings the monster truck rally right back on schedule with the penultimate track, “Coming Home”, another strikingly on-target road tune.
One easily avoided pet peeve: “Gone” is also available in an edited five-minute version, as opposed to its original seven minutes. Though why anyone would want to eviscerate such a worthwhile epic is beyond me.
The LP is widely considered passè as an art form in a universe of streamed singles. Dawn of the Freak could also be rated as two albums in one, the ‘road trip’ portion being superior. But for those old-school dinosaurs who prefer a blend of styles on their long players, the Haunted Youth’s promising debut shouldn’t be missed.