The reputation of the Black Lips largely rests upon their chaotic, unpredictable live shows, inspired by those of infamous hardcore artist GG Allin at a time when the band had yet learned to play their own instruments. So far, the band have yet to release an album to oust the looming shadow of those early days (though 2007’s Good Bad Not Evil probably came the closest), even with their vast pool of influences dotted around the garage-rock and proto-punk timelines.
With eighth album Satan’s Graffiti Of God’s Art? though, there seems to be one more major influence thrown into the mix, and while it’s easy to sit in bemusement at what the hell this band are doing with this one – eighteen tracks of massively eclectic output punctuated by warped, avant-garde interludes – when taking a look behind the scenes, the pieces start fitting together. With Sean Lennon behind the production desk and Yoko Ono making an appearance on the album (as well as the cover of It Won’t Be Long that appears near the record’s end), it’s not difficult to believe that The Beatles were at least in the band’s peripheral vision during this album’s creation. Of course, their influence is shifted to fit the Black Lips’ nightmarish, dirgelike vision, taking the famously diverse progression across their career and fitting it to their own style. Sure, the sleepy, jangling soft rock of Crystal Night and Wayne may draw some parallels, but factor some of the other contributing factors of rockabilly, psychedelia and garage-rock, and especially the slobbering, seedy jazz / post-punk hybrid Got Me All Alone, and Satan’s Graffiti Or God’s Art? stands as its own animal.
Though whether that’s a good thing or not is completely subjective, and given the dichotomy on show in that title, it’s likely the band themselves know it. The appeal only really comes through, even after plenty of time to digest, when the influence of the album’s other guest begins to shine through – Fat White Family frontman Saul Adamczewski. He only provides backing vocals and a fragment of a spoken word piece on the outro, but his band’s manic-yet-constrained reputation can be seen to osmose throughout this album, subsequently sharing many of the same positives – it’s raw and frequently uncomfortable, but with a bug-eyed personality that’s hard to ignore. On occasion it can feel a bit too much (see the slurred vocals and rough, feedback-sodden mix of We Know), but it’s rarely boring.
That’s mainly thanks to Cole Alexander’s vocals and the way he adapts them in whatever way the situation requires. The default setting seems to be a squalling, incredibly unrefined howl that’s present on tracks like Squatting In Heaven or Rebel Intuition, but it’s when they’re contorted into something a lot uglier that they really take hold, like the sneering, slacker drawl of Come Ride With Me, or the hard-edged slur of Occidental Front. Partner this with guitars that are already coated with grit and spit, and Lennon’s lo-fi production style that only accentuates how rough and ragged this whole thing is, and it makes for an album that wears its surprisingly sinister undercurrents like a badge. Taking into account the genial, even romantic imagery that’s present in the lyrics, the juxtaposition between them, the band’s rugged instrumentation and Alexander’s harsh, unapproachable delivery works to stark effect. Even It Won’t Be Long switches out the smiling ’60s pop for something driven by its leering, creepy performance in a way that sounds far more baleful than was ever even considered in the original.
It’s not worth overselling this album by any means; at eighteen tracks long, filler does creep through, like in the dull sea shanty Loser’s Lament that sends the album drastically skidding to a crawl right at the end, and it definitely won’t be an album for everyone, regardless of how diverse the band have made it. But as far as albums disparaging any sort of through line or consistency in favour of fertile creative freedom, Satan’s Graffiti Or God’s Art? finds the Black Lips in a peerless position in terms of where the source material comes from and how well they do it justice. If the unpredictable nature of the Black Lips is still their primary feature, they’ve now got an album that matches up to that.
For fans of: Fat White Family, King Khan, Jay Reatard
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Satan’s Graffiti Or God’s Art?’ by Black Lips is released on 5th May on Vice Records.