When you think about Canadian punk, there are a few names that instantly spring to mind. NoMeansNo and D.O.A. are the most famous of punk’s first wave; Comeback Kid and Cancer Bats are among the top tier of the twenty first century crop. Whilst Propagandhi are arguably the most famous exponent of Canadian punk in the 90s, The Black Halos made an impact in Vancouver between 1993-2009 – enough to get signed to the then very much in vogue Sub Pop label and to work with legendary producer Jack Endino.
The Black Halos looked more towards Johnny Thunders, New York Dolls and The Stooges for their core influences – something which, during that period, was very much a sidestep from the usual Ramones or hardcore influences dominant in the punk scene. The love for trashy rock so obviously helped guitarist Rich Jones become a natural fit with Ginger Wildheart’s band upon his relocation to the UK after the band’s split.
Jones reunited with the Halos’ other founding member, vocalist Billy Hopeless, in 2016 and original guitarist Jay Millette rejoined the fold in 2019. With a new line up of The Black Halos completed by ex-Age of Electric bassist John Kerns and Midnight Towers drummer Danni Action, the band returned to the recording studio. Their first new recordings since the reunion are collected on the ‘Geisterbahn II’ EP are a short but aggressive reminder of The Black Halos punk ‘n’ roll sounds of decades past.
The title track begins with a quiet but clean guitar riff that gives no indication of where it is headed. The ringing melody is lovely, but seemingly unconnected with the rest of the arrangement. With a thunder of rock ‘n’ roll drums and an overdriven guitar riff, the Halos embark on a super trashy punk ‘n’ roll banger that harks back to their own past, as well as ushering in traces of other bands like Bloodlights. Musically it’s fantastic – something that becomes evident in about four bars; vocally, it fares far less well. Hopeless still has that weird impish quality that makes him sound like a cross between Joey Vindictive and Eric Cartman, but it’s now often in a lower register which requires even more adjustment. Sometimes he growls and barks like an inebriate that inhabits his own bar-room arrangements and sometimes just drawls in a really unforgiving fashion. Whatever, although distinctive in its own way, it won’t sit well with everyone. Luckily, the hefty punk ‘n’ roll music continues to thrill with a crashing arrangement that’s about the best you’ll find for the style.
Scaling things back a little, ‘Tandem Drown’ abandons the punky aesthetic for some semi-melodic bar-room rock of the Watts and Tom Baker variety. The way an assured lead guitar cries from the left speaker channel while the rhythm guitar delivers a solid jangle part inspired by the early Goo Goo Dolls very much makes the track. Somehow, this very 70s and very retro sound even manages to be more sympathetic to Hopeless’s vocal drawl, despite giving him a lot less to hide behind. Lovers of a no-frills, loud guitar, post-Johnny Thunders rock ‘n’ roll might find a lot to like before The Black Halos return to full speed for ‘Fossil Fuel’, a fuel throttle punker with a hefty rock ‘n’ roll guitar twang lurking beneath. Applying some Rolling Stones-ish woo-woos to something that could be a deep cut from The Peawees, The Black Halos fully embrace their sweaty rock side, but the excitement doesn’t stop there. The addition of a few more chaotic backing vocals and a gloriously sloppy lead guitar break where both guitarists get a featured spot really throws this number into the trashy big leagues. With Hopeless channelling a (still ugly) but far more suitable performance all round, it’s easily The Halos best song this time out. Given how much better it is, vinyl buyers might be frustrated by it being a digital only bonus…
As a three song pre-amble to a proposed full length album, this works well. The featured tracks are simple enough to remind listeners of The Black Halos no-frills, high octane sound, yet just about varied enough to retain a broader interest without feeling too samey. Granted, Billy’s vocals are very much of the make or break variety and things aren’t quite as accessible or melodic as bands like The Generators (an excellent punk ‘n’ roll staple) or Bombshell Rocks, but since the music is consistently top notch, this will considered be a welcome return by the band’s fans.