Raw, Distilled Love: Royal Headache’s Gripping ‘High’

For when you really do give a fuck
By    September 3, 2015

royal headache review post

Peter Holslin killed the dinosaurs

There’s a lot of things about Royal Headache that give off a punk rock “Don’t Give a Fuck!” vibe. This four-piece from Sydney, Australia, is fast, grimy, and melodic—as efficient and effective as a well-oiled rat trap, only for music. Even their Twitter page has a ramshackle look to it. But if Royal Headache are punk, they’re punks with heart. They do give a fuck, and that’s what makes them special.

Their new album, High, came out last month on What’s Your Rupture? That New York label is also home to smirking post-punks Parquet Courts, and as the association would suggest, Royal Headache’s second studio effort touches on some important aspects of what’s like to be human, but just as notably, pulls an end-run around the humorlessness, buffoonery, and bro’d-out aggression that you’ll hear in a lot of punk music.

At their core, the 10 tracks on High are simply love songs. The band’s lead singer is a guy named Shogun, and with a tough Aussie accent and taut singing style, he spends most of these 29 minutes commiserating over, arguing with, and trying to win back a loved one. But there’s a serious urgency here, and deeper issues at play. Over the pounding riffs of album opener “My Own Fantasy,” Shogun describes living the lifestyle so many dudes dream about—“rock ’n’ roll and tons of girls!”—only to dismiss it as exactly that: a fantasy, something that cut him off from the real world.

Naturally, Shogun isn’t exactly Shakespeare when it comes to writing lyrics. But the simplicity works; it fits in with his piercing intensity and Buzzcocks-like command of melody. “Need you, need you, need you!” he cries over and over in “Need You,” his voice growing increasingly desperate while his band backs him up with bruised drums and soulful organs.

Like Shogun, the other three core members of Royal Headache go by single names: guitarist Law, bassist Joe, and drummer Shortty. And also like their frontman, these three manage to cram tons of energy into a very tight space. Joe uses deliberate, tuneful bass plucks to play off Shortty’s primeval 4/4 style; Law evokes soul and grit through bright harmonics, stirring chord patterns, and cranked overdrive.

Royal Headache formed four years ago, and their 2012 self-titled debut is pretty scrappy compared to this new effort. These days they’ve still got their frantic approach; “Another World” and “Little Star” are both premium punk bangers. But the band took the time between albums to go on hiatus and regroup, and now they’re stretching out more and using their imaginations—just listen to the way the band underscores Shogun’s scornful snarls in “Garbage” with sheets of distortion and samples of smashing glass.

Their forays into the matters of the heart have grown more sophisticated too. One of the best songs off their their 2012 debut is “Down the Lane,” which sounds like a greaser ballad dipped in lo-fi crud. On High, the track “Love Her If I Tried” has a similar ’50s vibe, more in spirit than in practice—imagine doo-wop crooner romance engulfed in a whirlwind of belted vocals and soaring guitar riffs. The only time the band really trips up is on “Carolina.” It’s the album’s only slow song, an admirable attempt at blue-collar rootsiness, and yet the jangly, semi-acoustic strummed riffs come off a bit hokey, more John Mellencamp than Joe Cocker.

Punk bands have been singing about love for as long as punk has been around. Of course that’s not exactly the most “serious” topic a punk band can take up, but with Royal Headache it makes sense. Rather than get sidetracked, they’ve done everything they can to focus in, in the end managing to strike a balance between chaotic emotion and rigid structure.

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