Genres are a necessary evil of categorizing any kind of art. It can be a great place to start; they immediately bring to mind a general idea of the piece in question, a rough list of all the things one can expect. But as a launching point, they, by definition, must be vague. And unless the artist is the first (or the best) working in the genre, generic labels will never really quite fit the piece.
To compensate for that, many artists and promoters will tie a million and three labels to one work: pseudo-new-wave-core-grind-death-pop, with indie-folk-jazz influences. Not only does that deconstruct every reason why genre labels exist in the first place, often times, it’s a multi-syllabic way of saying this music is so watered down, it has no discernable lineage. It’s the musical equivalent of prison slop.
So, when Volbeat’s latest, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies, came attached with “groove metal,” “punk,” “heavy metal,” and “rockabilly,” among many, many other tags, I prepared myself for the worst.
What I ended up listening to was the most interesting album I’ve heard in a long time, and perhaps the first instance I’ve come across of a successful commingling of multiple and varied genres.
The opening track confidently strides into town, riding the acoustic guitar and harmonica, thrusting the record’s Wild West motif deep into the listener’s ears. “Pearl Hart” follows, a seemingly disappointing delve into radio-friendly ‘hard rock;’ deep, quavering vocals, chugging rhythm section and friendly guitars masquerading as threatening. But as the song goes on, it becomes apparent that the heaviness isn’t manufactured, it’s inherent. The lyrics tell of a 19th century, female Robin Hood, not usually a subject popular on the airwaves. (Interesting to note, the band is Danish, and was not raised on The Myth of the West.)
The next tracks are heavier still, often moving into thrash territory courtesy of Rob Caggiano, former Anthrax axeman, and now fulltime Volbeat member. “Dead But Rising” recalls early Metallica, but does not stay in the territory, easily weaving between a mellower, almost hardcore chorus, and thrashy verses. Solid pop-punk tunes rest next to hardcore, gainy punk leads over heavy metal beds, thrash breakdowns in the middle of an otherwise straightforward rock song, and yes, even the rockabilly tinged “Lonesome Rider,” featuring Walk Off The Earth’s Sarah Blackmore as a guest vocalist. A banjo even accents “Doc Holiday”.
This proves to be the formula for the entire album, and it works perfectly. Each song enshrouds itself in a genre just long enough for the listener to get comfortable. Yet just when you think you’ve had enough, or you think you know what to expect, they seamlessly transition to a place that’s furthest from where the song was three seconds ago. The changes are never contrived, as is the case with most genre-hopping attempts, and illustrates not only a love but a deep respect for all visited terrain. The flow is incredible; on paper, it is the ultimate train wreck. Yet, on the record, is masterfully pulled off.
I know it is only May, but this could prove to be one of the most interesting albums of the year.