Queens of the Stone Age is a very unhep comparison to make these days since it conjures up some sort of dystopian desert-libertarian circle jerk where Chris Goss and Dave Grohl are rolling joints and affixing “Rap Is Crap” bumper stickers to each other’s engorgements. But the first two Queens albums were the best melodic hard rock a degraded age could ask for. They were heavy in the aural and emotional senses and perfect for being bummed while having a good time. I hear there’s some later solid jams, too, but I pretty much checked out when Eagles of Death Metal became a thing one was expected to sign up for to remain a true blue fan. Now, comparing a band to Queens of the Stone Age implies that said band is alternative rock… and that’s just cruel. I’m not saying that’s fair (I don’t make the news, I just report it) so let me be clear: when I say Wand reminds me of Queens of the Stone Age, it’s a compliment. Don’t punish the kids for the sins of the weird uncle. In the interest of helping Wand’s label, In the Red Records, move units and pay rent, I will later compare the band to other bands more in vogue. I respect the market.
I first heard of the Los Angeles psych-garage (is that a genre? I hope not, but still…) outfit Wand at SXSW, when members of my band heard them from three blocks away, fell instantly and deeply in love, and proceeded never to shut up about them. Now, to play rock at SXSW is to willingly embrace historical redundancy. Fewer and fewer people there give a single shit about rock, especially heavy rock, in much the same way that people no longer speak Latin, or even Pig Latin. In fact, all the punks on Planet Earth should rejoice. What they do is once again secret, left-of-the-dial, unheard music… because nobody in their right mind cares. Which is nice. More ice cream for us fat kids. I digress, like the echo of the ghost of a coked-up SXSW A&R guy. Anyway, I didn’t listen to Wand for months because the guys in my band who loved them are the rhythm section, and despite having more talent in their pinkies then I have in my entire being, I have a singer’s hubris and the world is my dad and can’t tell me anything. Oh foolish youth that I was back in March.
In my defense, my band mates talked about Wand’s excellent “tone” a lot and I don’t know what that is*. I assume it’s interchangeable with “vibe.” In which case: totally fair and accurate. Wand has a very dark and excellent vibe. And I assume it’s the vibe — the melancholy crunch that lay-dummies such as myself must please be forgiven for associating with the first two Queens of the Stone Age albums — that was so instantly appealing to my band mates, even three blocks away, even across the throngs of day-drunken Austin new-music career aspirants.
Wand’s new album, Golem, starts off with “The Unexplored Map” and segues immediately into “Self Hypnosis In Three Days.” This song duo sets the template for the album: references (I think) to Sir Roky Erickson’s two-headed dog, “Kids In America” start/stop guitar dynamics with bitter sweet Rusty Willoughby-esque (or Geddy Lee or maybe non-falsetto Sparks) vocals soaring and descending over them, and lots of lyrics about the mind and the world. Wand shares a lot of their psych brethren’s preoccupation with the inner world. Despite having spent more than my fair share of time in front of a mirror, pot makes me fetal and I’ve always seen hallucinogens solely as tools for making rocks and trees seem tolerable, so the mind is not high on my list of subjects of interest. But I get that the inner journey of one’s dimensional navel is a lyrical trope, so cool.
Wand’s singer, Cory Hanson, has certainly hinted in interviews that he’s aware of the world outside (he actually comes across as pretty charming and, by lead-singer standards, smart) and the lyrics (as far as I can decipher them) aren’t by any means mere rote recitations of psychedelic solipsism. There’s a darkness there that Cory doesn’t seem to be avoiding but, yes, lots of nods towards psychic journeys and whatnot. I understand that many musicians find words secondary. They never hesitate to tell me, and depending on my state of self-love, I’m occasionally inclined to agree. Regardless, the vocals are mixed low enough that one only really catches the loveliness of Hanson’s voice and the occasional instance of fantastical imagery that, fuck it, let’s assume is metaphor for a widening gap between the soul of man and his divine progenitor.
Which brings us back to the tone, the vibe, the Josh Homme comparisons… the guitars. The guitars on this album are a complete and unequivocal success. They Sabbath when they ought to Sabbath and they stand on the Nile watching the lady smile when that sort of behavior is appropriate, too. In between said crunchiness, there’s plenty of not-irritating phasing and squalls, then some of the prettiest leads I’ve heard in some time. Or at least since Siamese Dream. Occasionally the drums stop (or, at least on “Melted Rope,” are very subtle) and that’s a shame but they always come back in. Except in the last song, “The Drift,” where the lack of a beat is a double shame because, for a song named after one of Big Business’ best songs, not to have drums seems unnecessarily petty, but Los Angeles scene dynamics are none of my concern, and anyway, it’s the last song and last songs are hardly ever supposed to be good. (It’s not bad… just no drums).
Albums like Golem, if your focus is solely on the “new,” can be easy enough to write off as pastiche or tribute. This kind of tunnel vision, besides making you a complete drag at any party other than a critic’s bris, ignores the traditions we operate in, the joy of a shared ritual. In this case the ritual of sullen hairdos and boss riffs. Yes, Wand sound like they have an admirable record collection that they’ve worn the grooves down on, and certainly one of the pleasures of this record is the chances it offers us to play obscure-homage whack-a-mole, but that doesn’t reduce the integrity or power of the final product. Wand has the (rare) (very rare) ability to excite jaded band jerks with their songs. I really can’t pay a guitar band a higher compliment in 2015. It’s a dead language, but I like it, etc., etc….
*I may or may not actually know what tone is. But one man’s irritating faux-naivety is another man’s acknowledgment of the true unknowability of the perceived universe. It’s a device, man.