With what passes for rock and roll nowadays, who could really blame those that say the genre is dead or dying? But if you scratch just a little bit deeper, you’ll find there is a whole new generation of artists well versed in the finer points of classic rock, penning brand new messages in fifty year old ink. Greta Van Fleet may have garnered the lion’s share of hedgerow bustling from the mainstream, but there was a bumper crop of retro-leaning acts in 2018 proving there will always be plenty of room for bands that want to wrap themselves in velvets and party like it’s 1974. It was tough to whittle the whole year down to ten releases, and even tougher to rank them. But after countless hours of analysis, these are the best things I heard this year; if you don’t think they make ‘em like they used to, you need to check this shit out.
In addition to having a keenly honed knack for riff-driven/pop-tinged sugar-and-sludge psychedelia, Kevin Starrs does atmosphere better than anybody working in heavy music today. As creative force and sole constant member of Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, his albums play like 70mm cult horror classics bootlegged onto well-worn VHS cassettes, casting their cathode ray glow over otherwise darkened bedrooms. The colors are vibrant but washed-out, it’s warbly and more than a little distorted, the on-screen movements leave tracers, and the whole thing has just enough fuzz and static on it to seem genuinely creepy. Acid-steeped, with a heavy dose of psychopaths, brainwashers, and a ready steady flow of that red red kroovy, the Uncle Acid canon is a grindhouse marathon for the mind’s eye. The latest opus from Starrs and Co., Wasteland, brings the “post-apocalyptic dystopia” genre into the oeuvre, a tale of walled cities, mindless masses, piped-in propaganda, and hidden computer discs filled with long-forgotten memories and perhaps the keys to freedom. The premise may sound prog, but the execution is blessedly pure classic rock hesh.
Octopus began life in Detroit in 2008, largely as a recording project between vocalist Masha Marjieh and former Electric Six guitarist J Frezzato. After adding keyboardist/studio wizard Adam Cox a year later, the band recorded a few singles and cycled through a few rhythm sections before firmly securing the pocket with ex-Big Chief bassist Matt O’Brien and Seduce/Universal Temple of Divine Power drummer Todd Glass in 2012. The years of experience and familiarity clearly show through on their spellbinding debut full-length Supernatural Alliance (Rise Above); this band is locked in tight, and these ten songs are honed sharp enough to slice. It’s a slab of heavy-hitting hard rock, spiked liberally with equal doses of sci-fi and psychedelia, the perfect soundtrack to an imaginary big-budget flick about outlaw bikers in outer space.
Vol 1, the first album to carry the Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats moniker, has acquired a near-mythic status since its original release in February 2010 (not coincidentally, 40 years to the day after Black Sabbath was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world). Written, performed, and recorded entirely by then-unknown mastermind Kevin Starrs, the no-budget album’s entire production run consisted of 30 self-distributed CD-R’s. Starrs used what little profits there were to help fund the recording of the now-classic follow-up effort Blood Lust, and Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats (now a full band) were well on their way to becoming one of the darkest stars in the stoner metal universe. As their popularity grew, so did the reputation of Vol 1; it became highly sought by ravenous collectors, and highly exploited by unscrupulous bootleggers. Despite constant overtures from fans and label executives, Starrs refused to allow its reissue until he was able to personally oversee a thorough remixing and remastering; “It was a DIY project from the beginning,” Starrs explains, “so I wasn’t going to give it up and let someone else mess with it.” After six years on the record-tour treadmill, and with Uncle Acid on a well-deserved break, he fortunately found the time to mess with it himself, and Vol 1 will finally be hitting shelves (via Rise Above Records) and streaming services this Friday the 13th.