Jonah Bromwich sold his soul to John Milton.
One of the nice things about all the musical cross-pollination of the new millennium is the way that the thinning of genre boundaries emboldens artists to crossover in ways that were once considered taboo. Danny Kiranos, a former hardcore artist, embodies that sense of uninhibited exploration in the music he releases under the moniker of Amigo the Devil. Going from hardcore to a spare folk sound is a bit of a head-scratcher on paper. But it makes all kinds of sense when you listen to Amigo’s new EP, Manimals.
After the non-starter of a single, “The Liars Club” the EP picks up in earnest. The acoustic guitar present on the first song is used wisely to create insidious atmosphere, one that’s made even more ominous by Kiranos’ scratchy, raw, and chilling voice. But all that wouldn’t matter if it weren’t for the lyrics, which sound as if they were written by the collaborative team of early Bret Easton Ellis and James Ellroy. Because the musical atmosphere is relatively minimal, those lyrics create a compelling picture, so much so that a musical break serves to build suspense before the most deliberate threat is delivered on the hook: “I’m capable of making you disappear.” It was no surprise when I leaned over to check what the song was called and saw the apt title “Dahmer Does Hollywood” flash across my screen.
The music on the next track, “Perfect Wife” is more traditionally folky (jangling guitars) and less terrifying, but that just gives Amigo an excuse to up the violence of the lyrics a couple notches. Despite occasionally clumsy songwriting (rhyming CCR with VCR is particularly groan-worthy here) the overall vibe is arresting, gory to the point of parody and very knowingly — the end of each verse seems like an explicit mockery of the lyrical folk tradition. If you hadn’t heard the horror of the lyrics that came before, you would think you were just listening to a typical folk song when Kiranos sings variations on the lyric “Oh, what a perfect wife. Love of my life.”
“Infamous Butcher” trades the L.A. noir mood in for something that’s explicitly horrifying: a Guillermo Del Toro creature hardly disguised by a seemingly human appearance. As minor-key piano plinks in the background, we learn that “Under the bridge, there’s a man who eats kids and has a couple pigeons as pets/When the trucks drive above, they rattle his home and they rattle the bones he collects.” It’s delightfully shudder-inducing. And while the last track, “Husband” dials the mood back, from scary to vaguely unsettling, it’s once again a well-constructed song, powered by lyrics that are intelligent, frank and utterly convincing.
The Weeknd and Amigo the Devil have very little in common sonically, but the latter has followed in the former’s footsteps in altering a familiar genre so that it becomes mysterious and troubling, but ultimately too compelling to put down. Kiranos may be making music that takes cues from folk and a singer-songwriter tradition, but the way he alters that sound to fit the turbulent, distressing imagery of his songs is something totally new, and incredibly fascinating.