The Afghan Whigs – Do To The Beast review
The Whigs were among my favourite bands of the 90s. Though part of the grunge explosion, their brand of muscular, masculine and misanthropic alt.rock had an altogether different feel to it. The influence of classic soul on Greg Dulli’s tales of spurned love and desolation set them apart from the nihilistic apathy of many of the grunge acts. The Whigs approached sexuality in a way that most 90s bands shied away from and as a result lead singer Dulli was often labelled as a misogynist, but for me Dulli’s brand of posturing and bruised machismo was much more about self-loathing and frustrations at his character’s own inadequacies.
Musically The Afghan Whigs were among the most accomplished and tight bands of their era. Dulli and McCollom’s duelling guitars slashed and stabbed at each other as if caught up in a drunken street fight all the while underpinned by a rhythm section that was as confident with classic soul, funk and R&B as it was with pedal-to-the-floor rockers. Dulli’s barely in tune, anguished howl spitting out lyrics that at times were a form of self-immolation all combined to create some of the most exciting and still hair-raising music of the 90s. There are very few bands from that era whose music still stands up and doesn’t feel dated and the Whigs are one of those bands.
So that’s the past, what about the present? In these days, when everyday seems to bring news of another classic band reuniting to drag their fatter, balder selves across the world to desperately grab at the money that eluded them first time round, I think I could probably be forgiven for having low expectations of the new Whigs. True, Dulli has been musically active in the intervening years producing some fine work as The Twilight Singers and with Mark Lanegan but why resurrect and risk destroying the legacy of a truly great band?
It turns out I needn’t have worried, as Do To The Beast is as fine a return as anyone could have expected. Dulli is firing on all cylinders here and, while his voice is showing the signs of age, he uses it well throughout. From the heavier moments through to its quieter ballads, both his falsetto croon and howling screams crack in all the right places and, as was always the case with the Whigs, the emotions feel raw and real. Musically the band is as tight as they ever were (despite missing original guitarist Rick McCollom) and they seem to straddle some middle ground between the classic Whigs sound and The Twilight Singers. At points they even produce some of their heaviest work since their early days, which they then counterbalance with some wonderful, low-key, softer numbers. Dulli still doesn’t seem to be having much luck emotionally and for his sake I really hope that he is writing in character as pretty much everything here is a tale of broken relationships and damaged lovers shot through with a very real sense of desperation.
The more I listen to Do To The Beast the more it grows and reveals itself to me and I think it easily compares with the best of their original output. It isn’t up to the standards of Gentlemen, which for me is a genuine contender for album of the 90s, but it sits proudly alongside the rest of their formidable body of work.
Review by Neil Martin. ‘Do To The Beast’ is out now via Sub Pop / Inertia.