For reasons I can’t explain, The Men have chosen to go back to basics. Devil Music is the band’s sixth full length release since 2010, and it features music that is tense and wirey in ways that indicate The Men have perhaps finally figured out what their “basics” exactly are.
The bands prolific output over the past six years couldn’t have been predicted for a number of reasons. The first would be the interest the band was able to gain over that time. Immaculada, the band’s 2009 self-released debut, is heavy nondescript garage punk at both its finest and, somehow, its least palatable. That album was naturally upstaged by their 2011 Sacred Bones Records debut Leave Home. While Immaculada featured tracks that, across the board, hinted at potential (notably the hardcore sludgefest “Oh Yoko”,) Leave Home proved the band had a unique versatility and range, something they would to prove over the next 4 years. More importantly, it showed that whatever The Men were doing was going to be oddly accepted (instantly, nonetheless) by an audience whose perceived definition of “punk rock” was as wide and fluid as the bands was.
Concealed with varying degrees of subtlety, The Men’s sound from Leave Home through 2014’s excellent album Tomorrow’s Hits was concerned with capturing a sense of Americana. Whether it was brassy and bombastic like Tomorrow’s Hits’ “Another Night”, twangy and bar-backed like New Moon’s “High and Lonesome”, or wavering and psychedelic like Open Your Heart’s “Country Song”, The Men took punk rock and made it feel essential to the working class aesthetic. Despite where they were from and what the scene of punk rock had evolved into, The Men became anything BUT punk.
Devil Music is a return to form, although that form seems to be closer to their grimy origins than it does the twisted and exciting road we’ve come to expect from the band. None of this is helped by how underwater the band sounds through most of these 10 tracks. In many ways, Devil Music feels like the album that should’ve come between Immaculada and Leave Home; it’s filled with tiny revelations but it generally fails to acknowledge the territory they’ve charted between their debut and now.
The flourishes of folk and southern rock that the band so liberally toyed with in the past aren’t totally invisible. “Ridin’ On” feels appropriately titled given the way it messily soundtracks a chaotic underground motorcycle club. “Hit The Ground” similarly takes the album’s title literally and forces upon us a hellish soundscape of crooked brass and winded lyrics, and a glimmer of the band’s force-to-be-reckoned-with style emerges. Even the straight acoustic guitar instrumental “Devil Music” and the following psych blues banger “Gun” show a hyper awareness of how, when they’re not punching and fighting their way through the poor lo-fi quality, they have the ability to showcase a really fascinating palette of sounds and styles while still maintaining a somewhat mired edge.
While most of Devil Music is forgettable in intention and execution because of how fleeting it feels compared to their last few projects, it’s hard to say these songs are BAD. With LP 6, The Men are pretty up front with everyone when they called their album ‘Devil Music’ because that’s what it really is. Good or bad, this album undeniably has a satanic glaze on it and The Men are using this as a platform to establish, more to themselves than to us, their ability to breath fire.
When the repetition of the Metallica-esque guitar and drum patterns come avalanching down on the final track “Fire”, it becomes hard not to be simultaneously bored and impressed; Devil Music is hands down the band’s least dynamic release in years, but seeing the roots of their influence up close again in such a pensive and reflective manner is a nice reminder of how solid their punk foundation is, even if it’s not all that interesting. Grade: C+