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Black Lips
Satan's Graffiti Or God's Art? Brian Coney , May 11th, 2017 10:21

Few bands shapeshift as capably as Atlanta, Georgia’s Black Lips. Quintessential garage rock chameleons, they have filtered far-flung influence across seven transmogrifying records without pausing long to gaze upon the lay of their land. Album number eight, Satan's Graffiti or God’s Art? hurtles into bold territory, birthing an episodic symphony of sorts that not only rewards the repeated listen, but necessitates it.

Produced by Sean Lennon – who recently navigated The Moonlandingz’ latest Interplanetary Class Classics into masterfully wanton worlds – the record doubles up as a clean break of sorts for the revamped quintet. With guitarist Ian St. Pe and original drummer Joe Bradley out of the frame, bassist Jared Swilley and guitarist/vocalist Cole Alexander head a mixt ensemble featuring drummer Oakley Munson, the sorcerous Zumi Rosow on sax, former guitarist Jack Hines, low-key guest vocalist Yoko Ono, and Fat White Family’s Saul Adamczewski. Bleeding into soft focus via the disembodied death march of ‘Overture’, one is lured into a mottled procession of squalid tales and deceptively refined balladry.

Having insulated themselves from society during the recording process (an au courant move in itself, all things considered) there is an air of almost self-contained masquerade attached to the genre-leaping idiosyncrasies found on Satan's Graffiti or God’s Art?. This is the sound of a band who, galvanized by their new-fangled arrangement, mutate at will, veering between spitting garage blitzes such as lead single ‘Can’t Hold On’ and swaggering masterstroke ‘Squatting In Heaven’ to the root-fifth psychobilly strut of ‘Occidental Front’ and ‘Got Me All Alone’ – an early peak that takes basest Waitsian histrionics and melds it with the sonic equivalent of the very doomiest of delirium tremens. It’s this feature-length changeability that sees Black Lips rear a curious beast that, whilst openly throwback, contorts the blueprints with howling flair.

Whereas a perfectly zealous and uniquely privileged take on early Beatles gem ‘It Won’t Be Long’ (a song composed by the producer’s famous father, no less) makes for a frisson-inducing surge of warped garage homage re-imagining the original’s linear thrust via thumping rhythms redolent of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, it’s the more reclined efforts here where the real gems reveal themselves. Take ‘Wayne’ and ‘Crystal Night’, two brilliantly burrowing ditties that flirt with pastiche without kowtowing to outright caricature. Where the former marries breezy slide guitar with goofy talk box frills and sugar-coated harmonic climbs, the latter could – were it not for its knowingly woozy nuances – be a bygone R&B hit of the early the 60s, all swooning and pristine and earworming. Here, as on the waltzing spell of ‘Loser’s Lament’ and the spooked-out, Jefferson Airplane-on-benzos intermission 'Elektrik Spiderwebz', Black Lips reveal their savoir-faire of exerting restraint.

Fading out of view with a reprise of the opening overture in the form of ‘Sunday Mourning’ – a minute-long ‘Finale’ fusing latter-era Flaming Lips la-la-las, incorporeal sax lines stemming from Angelo Badalamenti's seedier Twin Peaks themes and Adamczewski waxing delirious about stumbling upon Gerry Adams and his magic beans on the highway – Satan's Graffiti or God’s Art? answers its own question with a fearless “both, at once, and more.”

Whilst the band will likely invite detraction for the sheer level of variation on offer here (and truth be told, a few tracks could easily have been trimmed from the whole) as with countless other sprawling anti-operettas of its ilk, taking time to get to know this eighteen-track album pays dividends. A mélange of harum scarum garage-psych, unabashed homage and carefully-crafted pop reprieve, it finds Black Lips at their most daring, exploratory and downright vital.