DAS KAPITANS – Debut

For those who were paying attention to the UK indie rock/punk underground during those periods of pandemic lockdown during 2020 and ’21, the name Das Kapitans will be a familiar one. As the world slowly ground to a halt, the band went into recording overdrive by releasing twelve albums’ worth of material at a rate that would’ve made Guided By Voices man Robert Pollard seem lazy.

Their 2022 release ‘Debut’, then, isn’t a debut in the true sense; nor does it mean that the band consider their dozen lo-fi Bandcamp releases in anyway unofficial or unimportant. The title comes from the fact that it’s actually the first Das Kapitans disc to be recorded “properly”, with far more care – and with all of the band members present at all times. This gives the album an extra level of professionalism, but those who’ve already taken the time to explore the band’s rapidly assembled catalogue and fallen for its ragged and noisy charms needn’t worry about this being too polished. Yes, in many ways, the material sounds better, but it never really loses any of the band’s rough and ready spirit, and the expected big riffs are still at the forefront of the best material.

Released as a single just ahead of the album, ‘To The Sea’ is Das Kapitans at their most primal. It doesn’t focus around any of their punkier intents or Mudhoney fixations, but instead, latches onto a slow, bass driven groove. The level of distortion is brutal; the melody, slight. And yet, there’s something within the noise and force that has a huge heart, and the way a very British vocal is applied to a very US-centic wall of noise makes it distinctive. This short love letter to alternative noise via the uncompromising sounds of bands like the much missed Mutiny Mutiny and cult heroes Slint results in something great. It’s an odd single choice, though, since isn’t necessarily going to be a standout for the Kapitans novice, as any melodies are a little slower to present themselves. However, for those who’ve taken the journey so far, the main riff is certainly huge enough to make an impression, so maybe that’s entirely the point here; it could be about advertising their command of a riff above all else. Whatever, the short and more rhythmic ‘Getaway’ redresses the balance with something more typical, when a shrill lead guitar leads the charge into a crunching, post-grunge/garage rock banger that pushes the bass to the fore, working through something that sounds like a deep cut from Nirvana’s ‘Incesticide’ radio sessions colliding with peak Sonic Youth. The bulk of the track sounds instantly familiar – and in many ways, that’s a great strength – but in taking the core of their many demo quality recordings and adding a few extra layers, Das Kapitans sound so much more assured. The simple riff is enough to carry the track, but it shifts from good to great at the eleventh hour when vocalist/guitarist Simon Bailey adds an extra layer of guitar, almost in a jarring art rock style to flesh out the sound. It’s here that the band’s retro heart really comes through too, and it’s easy to hear how easily they make a very 90s sound appear spirited and fresh in 2022.

‘Tragic’, meanwhile, launches into some full on garage punk that works drummer Lewis Smith particularly hard, and its great to hear him and bassist Stephen Potter locking together here, becoming an absolutely unshakable rhythm section while Simon chews through an angry lyric. A brief shift into militaristic rhythms threatens to derail everything midway when overlaid with siren-like guitar, but the main riff re-emerges pretty quickly to take Kapitans into another round of superb garage punk, before ‘Overdrive’ supplies even more riffs in a very 90s style. Hearing the tracks sequenced one after the other, the tonal shift is interesting. ‘Overdrive’, despite its title, sounds thinner – cheaper, even – but given time to adjust, it doesn’t skimp on riffs or power. If anything, the layers of fuzz and shout along chorus hook appear to be a direct throwback to their ‘X Y Z’ release, but a direct comparison really shows how much tighter the band are and, especially, how much stronger the vocals are thanks to a bigger recording budget and more time spent on the recording process. For those hoping to find some flat out punk, as per the ‘10’ release, ‘Infection’ is happy to oblige with a huge, speed driven banger that relies heavily on massive ringing guitars and a world of shouting. For those who’ve followed the band since the beginning, it’ll be sounds such as this that, in many ways, are the most familiar, and yet here, with an increase in bass and a little more warmth and power, that the Kapitans’ sneering anger sounds better than ever. In terms of flat out garage punk – save for some of the tunes on Get The Fuck Outta Dodge’s ‘Buzzkill’ LP – you won’t find much that’s more heartfelt.

All of that good stuff is bolstered by a few tracks that were released as digital singles during a very slow build up to the release of ‘Debut’ itself. ‘That’ll Do Pig!’ opens with a taut riff that brings out the very best in an overdriven guitar, before exploding into a fuzzy, angular riff that shows off a massive love for bands like Fugazi. The interplay between the guitar and drums is very tight, yet somehow fluid enough to make the core of the music feel spacious, and the addition of a distorted vocal adds a very 90s flair. For those already well versed in the band’s quickly assembled catalogue, there’s plenty here that’s instantly recognisable as top drawer Kapitans, especially with the crashing punk-influenced riff driving the chorus delivering the standout moments. What’s more, it’s familiar enough to feel like an instant favourite without ever sounding like a lazy, rehashed or hacked out variant of past work. The stronger – and more inventive – ‘Council Pop’ works a mean descending riff from a loud guitar before branching off into an off kilter tango that sounds like an unholy alliance between an old Blur b side (circa the self-titled LP) and a half remembered piece of 90s art rock from the The Jesus Lizard. The riff is so atonal and angular, you can’t help but be drawn in by it, and a further venture into a slab of noise where a Slint-esque noise smothers the main tune shows how Das Kapitans’ minimalist set up is capable of creating a really full sound. As everything progresses, the constant repetition becomes almost hypnotic, and a slightly flat vocal lends the sharp and distinctive melody another offsetting element that accentuates some brilliantly ugly quirks. Those who love Das Kapitans when they’re going “all out punky” might have to work a little harder to appreciate any musical rewards with this number, but in showing how strong they are when muscling in on an arty/discordant sound, it’s very effective indeed.

An instant standout, ‘Pants On Fire’ changes the mood by introducing unexpected funk rhythms which, again, provide a great showcase for Stephen and Lewis. Loaded with distorted vocals and tales of a “Ford Orion”, it supplies another very British take on a post-punk/garage sound, and as the track progresses it really springs to life. An instrumental break introduces something more typical for the band, their power trio chops really capture an anger that makes good on many of their earlier DIY works. Despite not being the longest of numbers and being stylistically unexpected, it’s great to hear a band so unafraid of not being stuck in a rut or playing safely.

Another reason to pick up the album, especially if you’ve not bought the digital singles, ‘Big Muff’ is something of a gem. By opening with a really angular post punk riff it immediately feels familiar, but by further showcasing a great guitar tone from Simon Bailey as he pierces through a fairly standard punky groove with a shrill discord, it displays a certain edginess that could rival many of the greats. Aided by taut rhythm, that’s enough to set it in place as a great track for the style, but the arrival of a natural, slightly shouty vocal ups the tension just enough to make it seem even more vital. There are times where the vocal slurs threaten to pull everything down, but a hard edged chorus blending the best elements of Wipers and Mudhoney gives the tune a genuine kick. Moving through a couple of bars where a Melvins-eque almost derails everything, the band reach for the simple hook one last time, and the cries of “Save yourself, save your song” take on an air of something almost anthemic. None of this seems particularly unusual, until you take a closer listen to the lyrics. In a typically quirky style, Das Kapitans have taken the quintessentially British tale of a man hawking tatty goods at a boot fair in Blackpool and applied them to a fuzzy, garage driven backdrop that owes so much to the American alternative sounds of the 90s it creates an inspired mismatch. What’s more, it’s presented very naturally, proving that the band haven’t tried too hard to be different or quirky. It sounds great, and it’ll certainly appeal to a broad audience of listeners who love all things of a relatively lo-fi, punky persuasion.

Slowing down, ‘MTV’ serves up a mid tempo riff that’s very much driven by Stephen Potter’s hefty bass sound. Drummer Lewis Smith also holds a steady beat, over which waves of distorted guitar recall 90s alternative sounds with a shameless, recycled love. Pretty quickly, echoes of the earlier emo bands like Sunny Day Real Estate fill the sound, but another distinctly British vocal keeps everything in line with previous Das Kapitans recordings. The lyrics are minimal – its four repeated lines are drawled as a slacker mantra with a mildly threatening presence – and at first it seems as if it’ll burn itself out prematurely. However, by gradually intensifying the vocal, it eventually becomes a good example of the band’s abilities to create something great out of almost nothing. It probably won’t challenge the brilliant ‘Big Muff’ in your affections, but in terms of showing a different side to the band, it has a power and a moodiness that’s more than effective.

Very few things are perfect, of course, and there are a couple of tracks here that don’t work anywhere near as well. The expletive driven ‘Fuck You’ promises a lot at the outset with its off kilter, almost waltzing time signature, hard rhythmic toms and hints of Smashing Pumpkins within the deep rattling bass. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to back that up. The verses consist of a couple of mumbled lines followed by the title yelled incessantly, and at the tail end of the album ‘Slow Jam’ goes nowhere fast. In fairness, it sort of half advertises itself as a piece of filler, but its mix of post grunge lumbering and sub-early Beck narrative is a bit dull. Despite capturing a tired sounding band, there are still moments within when this plays like something that was too good to throw away, however. This is especially the case with the coda when Das Kapitans wander into something that’s sort of like a strange stoner tribute to ‘Hey Jude’ with its repetitious, wordless hook. Maybe they feel this will rouse the audience when played live? That may well be the case, but as a recorded work, it’s missing the necessary spark.

Although there are a couple of tracks here that aren’t especially catchy or instant, the bulk of ‘Debut’ plays like the culmination of Das Kapitans’ long spell of obsessive recording during lockdown. Its best songs are beefier without being too commercial; the vocals are more assured at every turn, and the fuzz layered power that cuts through the riffs really makes good on their early promise. For those who’ve enjoyed various aspects of the band’s quickly amassed low budget works, this will feel like the ultimate pay off. Recommended.

Visit Das Kapitans on Bandcamp here.
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July 2022

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