Though it may be counterintuitive to their own purpose, award shows don’t often tend to be the greatest paragon of quality. As much as people tend to lean on them as a validation of their own opinion of what’s good, it’s really just another celebration of what’s popular and how it can be more popular. Take this year’s Grammys, particularly the rock catagory which featured such hardcore heavy-hitters as James Bay’s Hold Back The River and Elle King’s Ex’s And Oh’s. But look past the usual indie pablum and contractually obliged Slipknot inclusion and there was an unexpected name there – Highly Suspect, nominated for Best Rock Album with their debut Mister Asylum. What makes this particularly puzzling – despite the fact that, at the time, this band were relative unknowns – is that this isn’t the type of rock that tends to get a mainstream push in the States; they’re almost like a halfway house between Soundgarden and Queens Of The Stone Age (even though the fact that sharing stages with Black Stone Cherry would say very differently).
By comparison, The Boy Who Died Wolf is unlikely to be another piece of Grammy fodder for Highly Suspect; lyrical cuts like “I’m feeling the way that I’m feeling myself / Fuck everyone else” (My Name Is Human) and “I just wanna be naked / And masturbate all day at home” (Serotonia) are hardly what such establishments gravitate towards, but even on a larger scale, the Massachusetts trio reach further than before into more insular territory. Apart from Viper Strike, a hilariously snarky polemic directed at the bigotry and intolerance running rife around America due to its current political quagmire (choice lyric: “Oh, you’re homophobic? / Wow, what a bitch / I almost wanna blow your mind and just go suck a dick”), The Boy Who Died Wolf‘s central theme surrounds frontman Johnny Stevens’ own inner workings and his embrace of a natural human desire for pleasure. Serotonia illustrates Stevens’ craving for change through the metaphor of the baked hedonism of Hollywood glamour, while My Name Is Human and Postres exemplify the much-sought carpe diem lifestyle, the former through the rejection of spirituality in favour of clearly defined agency, and the latter in the form of blatant exaltation. Even in For Billy, the tribute to a dead friend, the tone is portrayed as one of a celebration of life rather than mourning. It’s a refreshing direction to take, and it takes The Boy Who Died Wolf in a more interesting direction than a typical angst-ridden, bottom-shelf rock record.
Musically it’s a similar story too, with most of this album locked into a rock-solid foundation of hulking blues-rock riffs and Stevens’ surprisingly versatile vocals. Forgiving the stumbles on the dragged-out Soundgarden B-side of Send Me An Angel and the formless, meandering buzz of F.W.Y.T, Highly Suspect show themselves to be one hell of a unit in terms of tightness, fluidity and instrumental proficiency. The latter comes mainly in the gargantuan closer Wolf with the blistering slither of the guitar solo over Ryan Meyer’s thunderous drums, but that’s not to say the trio slack off elsewhere. There’s the puncturing brusqueness of Look Alive, Stay Alive or the sticky-heated smolder of Serotonia that displays an adroit technicality usually unexplored by bands who so clearly draw on a similar classic influence. Elsewhere there’s the raw emotion of Little One and echoing piano of Chicago to add some real humility to the album, with Stevens at his most vocally passionate here.
But perhaps the best thing about The Boy Who Died Wolf is that, now that Highly Suspect have nestled into the public consciousness, it’s actually likely that there’ll be swell beneath an album as smart and incisive as this. They deserve it to, as this is clearly a step above Mister Asylum, a seriously impressive piece of work that has organic grit, a tremendous amount of power and a level of talent spread equally between songwriting chops and instrumental dexterity. And compared to almost all the other blues-rock bands enjoying success these days, Highly Suspect have a sound that isn’t immovably rooted in the past. It’s simply a great rock album, something that there can never be too many of.
For fans of: Soundgarden, Queens Of The Stone Age, Band Of Skulls
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The Boy Who Died Wolf’ by Highly Suspect is out now on Theory Records.