The cover of Berwanger’s new one, Exorcism Rock, brazenly claims brand new territory for the band, and for Josh Berwanger, the songwriter.
The title hints at something playfully sinister, shades of The Cramps or Rob Zombie — maybe even a splash of Swedish death metal. But the cover illustration, a gender-switched, contorted (and nude) agonized-Hamlet moment, complete with a contemplated Yorick skull, suggests more subtle (albeit lurid) meditations on love, sex and death.
In the end, it’s not quite either one.
Vocalist and guitarist Josh Berwanger is a veteran of Lawrence’s innovative, critically-lauded — and recently briefly reunited — The Anniversary, from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, and Exorcism rocks harder than anything he’s done since Your Majesty, The Anniversary’s second and final studio album. Not coincidentally, this one reunites Berwanger with Doug Boehm, that album’s producer.
When The Anniversary broke up, Berwanger formed The Only Children, a more roots-oriented band, and then Berwanger, whose first album, Strange Stains, was far from quiet but definitely on the “interior” side. With Exorcism Rock, there’s a sense that Berwanger, band and writer, needed .... well, to let out some inner demons.
Berwanger never spirals all the way into the darkness, and the soliloquies here mull over desire (okay, lust) instead of mortality. The title track, even with an opening suggestion that someone wants to “cut off my head/and watch the blood spatter,” actually stems from the height of a nasty band feud: Its kiss-off line — “Heard you on the radio/Song’s bad/I thought I’d just let you know” — is one of the album’s best moments. Even the creepiest title, “Rats and Bats,” winds up being about a thunderstruck crush (“Move like a rat/Smooth as a cat/Girl, I want you so bad”).
“I Want You Bad” (a definite thematic undercurrent) is the punk version of that sentiment, one of many songs designed primarily to make bodies move. “Slutty Skin,” at its core, is about the pleasures, and dangers, of hanging out with the bad kids. Lyrics all throughout Exorcism are full of the same joys as Ramones songs — simple to express but implying a lifetime of happy complications.
Even the most Rush-titled and metallic song here, “Spirit King,” with its gigantic guitars and ferocious solos (even an acoustic guitar break) courtesy of Josh Berwanger and guitarist Ricky Salthouse, stakes all its chips on the wish “I wanna rock and roll/I wanna steal your soul.” Berwanger’s voice makes that wish irresistible — and makes that demand the theme of the album.
“Spirit King” even shares a line — “I wanna dance with you” — with “Booty Shake,” a Tom Petty-esque roller about leaving town together and just plain finding each other. “Space and Time,” a combination of rock god guitars and Everly Brothers lyrics — with an amazing Alan Parson’s Project outro thrown in for good measure — shows the sweeter side of Josh Berwanger’s sentiments, too.
The crucial revelation of Exorcism Rock is that all of these musings, even the gentlest, are way more fun when they’re arena-sized.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.