THE DROWNS – Blacked Out

Towards the end of 2023 Seattle based punk ‘n’ roll band The Drowns released ‘1979 Trans Am’/‘Just The Way She Goes’, a double A-sided disc designed as a preview for their next long player. On those terms, it did an excellent job, since one track shared their gruff and ballsy rock sound driven by gravel edged vocals, and the other tapped into more accessible pop punk. It effectively showed off both of The Drowns’ musical extremes in one hit.

What’s more interesting is that, although both songs were excellent in very different ways, neither is actually ‘Blacked Out’s best. The band’s third long player is brimming with raw riffs and big hooks, and on ‘Wheels’, especially, their love of a taut riff and retro melody really raises the bar. Opening with a great bass sound, it immediately advertises a great retro quality, and the arrival of a chunky guitar riff and solid rock sound casts The Drowns in the mould of old new wave bands like Tonight and The Knack. The track is more melodic than the former, thanks to a superb vocal, but punchier than the latter, staying true to The Drowns’ punk roots. With the aid of a harmony drenched chorus hook that sounds like a tribute to the early days of MTV and a roaring lead guitar break that accentuates the punk ‘n’ roll element, its got a little bit of everything to entertain most fans of melodic punk. The same could be said for the also enjoyable ‘Yob On A Rampage’ which mixes The Drowns’ rock ‘n’ roll chops with the roughness of the second wave of UK punk. Andy Wylie’s vocals are, perhaps, a little too polite for the rollocking sound the band whip up during these few minutes, but in terms of hook, the number works brilliantly. When the chorus kicks in, it’s obvious things are gearing up for something bigger and although, in this case, “bigger” merely means a lot of repetition, this has has a simple feel that’ll connect with the audience on first listen. Factor in a shrill rock ‘n’ roll lead guitar, a chanting backing vocal and really crashy drum part, and this becomes a decent slice of punk ‘n’ roll with a heavy accent on the punk.

If Wylie’s smooth-ish vocals are a little too melodic for you, Aaron Rev Peters is more than happy to supply a really sharp and direct alternative on various cuts. His voice falls somewhere between a solid punk shout and a phlegm injected death rattle, which often makes him sound like the Bosstones’ Dickie Barrett in a really bad mood. His approach never creates the easiest of listens, but he clearly knows that his limited – and somewhat stylised approach – works quite well on The Drowns’ faster tracks.

Sharing some of the band’s rowdier sounds, the aptly named ‘Banger’ fuses a buzzing guitar lead to a glam infused stomp. The music, augmented by massive whoahs and heys immediately evokes old Glitter hits (unfortunately), but in terms of both catchiness and tight playing, it cannot be faulted. Favouring s driving riff over any complicated hooks, it’s clearly just been designed to rouse the audience, and with pride of place at the top of this collection, it does that job simply and directly, but its once ‘Ketamin & Cola’ kicks in that The Drowns’ no-nonsense punk ‘n’ roll really comes into its own. The riffs on this track are fantastic; occasionally sounding like The Humpers and New Bomb Turks with an attitude, or Zeke playing at a more natural tempo, it’s a perfect example of the genre. Peters attacks a speed oriented vocal with all the subtlety of truck, but his throaty roar brings as much attitude as the driving guitar work, whilst wordless backing vocals and occasionally muted notes add a couple of pop punk quirks. Towards the end of the number, a very muscular bass is happy to remind listeners that despite having a disposable quality, this arrangement is really full, and also far from having been hacked together on the quick and the cheap.

Moving into ‘Dynamite’, the punk ‘n’ roll takes in a little retro pop, thanks to another brilliant counter vocal, whist a boogie rhythm makes everything sound like The Drowns hammering an old Quo tune, before things take a dramatic chorus shift to pay tribute to (the) Sweet with some higher toned, glam-ish vocals and a very 70s melody. If you’re looking for examples of this band showing off their more melodic edges, this is a standout, even if it isn’t always representative of the core of their work. ‘Don’t Have A Job’, meanwhile, throws massive power chords over another glammy groove before dropping into some crashy rock where the Rev roars incessantly, leaving it to a fun counter vocal to lift the mood, and the title cut whips a 50s riff into a punky frenzy allowing plenty of opportunity for a rowdy gang vocal to take the lead. If you ever wanted to hear something that sounded like Rancid mauling an old Darts number, then this might well appeal. There are times when these tracks veer towards The Drowns working within a comfort zone, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the latter, especially, that tried and tested approach still manages to create a punk ‘n’ roll mood that shares a great energy. That’s more than can be said for ‘Born To Die In NYC’, unfortunately. The album’s only real misfire, this piano ballad sounds like a cut-price John Cale tune reworked for someone with a limited vocal presence. Aaron’s rough sound works well when The Drowns are going hell for leather on a punky riff, but in this set up – a candid narrative on bar room ballad – he just sounds…broken. Maybe that’s the point, given the lyrics convey the last thoughts of a man trying to make peace with the world, but it’s a very hard listen.

As for the previously released double A, the tracks sit quite well within this broader work. Armed with a superb riff that mixes classic Face To Face tones with a little punk ‘n’ roll bounce, ‘Just The Way She Goes’ sounds like the best throwback to the late 90s you’ve ever heard, whilst a huge, harmony drenched chorus really pushes forward the song’s more melodic intents. Between Aaron’s chunky guitar and Andy’s great voice, the track would automatically be a winner, but a brief slide into more of a punk ‘n’ roll mood to allow for a pointed lead guitar really gives everything a lift. It doesn’t quite match ‘Wheels’ when it comes to catchiness, but it’s a more than solid example of the band’s strongest musical chops.

Of the two, ‘1979 Trans Am’ now feels like a track that’s more of an acquired taste. It taps into retro sounds in a huge way when a rock ‘n’ roll riff gets augmented with another glam-ish stomp, which starts everything strongly. With that in place, bright sounding guitars drive a tune that sounds like a punkier take on something from the Suzi Quatro catalogue crossed with something derived from Racey’s cheesy late 50s pastiches, providing a very familiar melody. Despite best intentions, it feels a little slow for the job in hand, but it’s certainly well played, and is delivered in a way that helps the song sound like an old classic with almost immediate effect. Between a great guitar part, a really uplifting backing vocal and one of the simplest, catchiest hooks ever, the track holds its own, but there’s a feeling – when measured against the bulk of this LP – that it should be better. Against the decent music, the listener has to contend with one of the album’s more difficult vocals. Peters smothers the superb tune with a voice that roars and grumbles in a manner that’s not so much “punky and threatening in an old school way”, as “you’re clearly not well – would you like to go and see the school nurse?”. Somewhere around the fifth play – assuming you’re able to persevere – it feels a little more natural, but as the album has already proved, there are better rough punk ‘n’ roll thrills to be found elsewhere.

The Drowns aren’t complicated. ‘Blacked Out’s best songs are rowdy and borderline sloganistic, but at the same time, their love of uptempo rock ‘n’ roll guitar revelry and a tight arrangement lifts the material in a very effective way. If you liked the band before, then chances are, you’ll love this. If you’re approaching The Drowns for the first time, some of the vocals are likely to challenge – but stick with it; when those choruses work, they really work, and the riffs are rarely less than great. Overall, ‘Blacked Out’ just wants to give listeners a good time – and, on that score, it’s mostly a big hit.

February 2024