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Royal Trux
Quantum Entanglement Adam Lehrer , December 12th, 2019 09:05

Listening to their new greatest hits collection on Fat Possum, Adam Lehrer asks, do we really need any more Royal Trux?

“This inquiry began with a deceptively simple question,” wrote the late American social critic Christopher Lasch in his 1991 text The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics. “How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?”

Progress isn’t always the noblest of societal aims, Lasch suggests, and excessive focus on it feeds the boundless, insatiable desires of humans. Lasch advocated a return towards moral conservatism for better societal outcomes. But the quote could also apply to avant-rock duo Royal Trux since the formerly married and recovering hard drug addicted rock n’ roll deconstructionists Jennifer Herrema and Neil Hagerty got the band back together in 2015.

Let’s just say, it’s been a rough reunion. For better or worse (mostly worse), Royal Trux isn’t interested in progress anymore.

After touring the world and some triumphant shows at Beserkertown, the duo released its reunion album White Stuff earlier this year. Though the album has some moments, it mostly sounds like what it is: an album made by divorced ageing druggies barely speaking to one another and phoning it in. The idiosyncratic, narcotised, and deterritorialised rock n’ roll that made Royal Trux icons has been replaced with a watered down version of the band’s back catalogue. It wasn’t just fans and critics who noted this, but Hagerty himself. He disavowed his involvement with the album in a widely circulated Guardian article, resulting in the contemptuous former lovers dragging each other in the press and eventually canceling their anticipated American tour.

And now we have Quantum Entanglement, a Fat Possum Black Friday special release that collects and re-sequences old Royal Trux songs into a new album.

I will admit here that I am a lifelong Royal Trux devotee. They are one of the three bands (with The Velvet Underground and The Fall) that I constantly refer to as my favourites. I remember reading about the group’s 1990 deconstructed rock masterpiece Twin Infinitives on the Sonic Youth message board. Though I’d heard of the duo – their rock n’ roll influences, their fashion, their inexplicably lucrative major label deal, their heroin – something about the way that album was described by whatever SY message boarder fascinated me, something like “Twin Infinitives is a rock record made by aliens from a planet in which rock had yet to exist.”

Finally listening to it was a revelation. With no regard for traditional structure, the album made a bed in which garage rock, funk, free jazz, noise and electronica were free to engage in a blissed out, opiated orgy coalescing as an amorphous solitary form. I think it’s one of the most enduringly fascinating rock albums ever recorded.

Twin Infinitives is of a lineage of American modernist albums that use rock n’ roll as a structural base from which it can be fragmented, abstracted, and deconstructed. Let’s call it “avant americana”: White Light, White Heat, Trout Mask Replica, Chrome’s Half Man Machine Lip Moves, To Live and Shave in LA’s The Wigmaker in 18th Century Williamsburg and The Hospitals’ Hairdryer Peace. Like these seminal albums, Twin Infinitives pulls rock n’ roll apart at the seams. Herrema, then 16, and Hagerty, still then a member of Pussy Galore, recorded the album under dionysian amounts of speed, pot, acid and heroin in the late ‘80s and achieved a sound that approximated the rock form desublimated and deterritorialised. While the band wore its influences on its sleeve – Beefheart, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Ornette Coleman – it was decidedly modernist in how little it sounded like anything else. In its gloriously libidinal approach to song craft and their glamorised junkie look, Royal Trux was as much rock criticism as it was rock band. “Royal Trux didn't so much glorify bad habits as confound the image of the rock n’ roll cliché,” wrote art curator and writer Bob Nickas for his dearly departed Vice column.

Royal Trux’s avant rock n’ roll would hew closer to conventional song structure on the albums that followed Twin Infinitives, but that album’s chaotic experimentalism became the foundation for all of the band’s music. Thank You approximated an opiated 1960s surf rock, Sweet Sixteen reimagined 1970s funk as expressionistic sleaze, Accelerator fantasized ‘80s hair metal as avant-garde liberation, and so on.

Knowing all this, it pains me to swallow the music that Royal Trux has released since Herrema and Hagerty reformed. White Stuff left me alienated and distressed: “You reformed the band to make this?” I thought. And now with Quantum Entanglement, it would appear that the group recognises its creative stagnation as it literally repackages old songs that fans have definitely heard before. Royal Trux is putting my fandom to the test.

Quantum Entanglement plays more like a greatest hits collection than a resequencing of older tracks that offers new insight into the band’s magic. With songs pulled from almost all of Royal Trux’s post-Twin Infinitives records, the collection focuses mostly on the duo at its most rocking and occasionally emphasizes the duo’s oft-overlooked tight songwriting and truly groovy rock n’ roll music. But by understating the band’s schizoid art-damaged process and aesthetic, an aspect of Royal Trux’s two-pronged appeal is lost in translation.

The collection opens with fan favourite ‘I’m Ready,’ originally the opening track off 1998’s Accelerator. Accelerator marked Royal Trux’s return to Drag City after their two Virgin releases and the ceasing of their blowing massive major label funds on the peculiarly spastic hi-fi classic rock that they’d grown notorious for. “On their two albums for Virgin, 1995’s Thank You and 1997’s Sweet Sixteen, Royal Trux had the funds to fully realize their unconventional vision of a classic-rock record,” wrote Stuart Berman for Pitchfork. “Accelerator”, by contrast, sounds like a classic-rock band trying to make a Royal Trux record – hi-fi boogie debased into lo-fi noise.” ‘I’m Ready,’ with Herrema’s snarling rallying chants and its distorted wah-wah basslines, is as close to a perfect pop song as Royal Trux has ever recorded. But it’s a bit played out, and opening this collection with it leaves little room for renewed insight.

‘Waterpark,’ a track that opened 1999’s Veterans of Disorder follows and emphasizes Royal Trux’s ability to compose Dazed and Confused-level feel good rock licks while pulling apart its influences enough to appeal to Harry Pussy and Grand Funk Railroad fans in equal measure. Another welcome addition is ‘The Spectre,’ off of 1993’s Cats and Dogs , featuring harmonised lyrics by Hagerty and Herrema, a subtly mystical percussion line, and a gorgeous Hagerty guitar line approximating Keith Richards lost in a Texas ghost town. Royal Trux is underappreciated for their lyrics. Note the haunted beauty of this track: “My faith is in the spectre and there it shall remain / The spectre is a surgeon, an anatomic guide,” the then-lovers sing and spew in unison.

The decision to include ‘White Stuff,’ released earlier this year on the band’s unequivocally worst album, confounds. While the song has some powerful guitar lines and heady grooves, it is devoid of the abjection that made Royal Trux a revelation. If anything, the track reminds us of what Royal Trux has lost. Couple that with the total lack of any of Royal Trux’s most brazenly bizarre music – including the failure to include anything off of Twin Infinitives – and fans have to be wondering, “Do we need more Royal Trux?”

The distance between Hagerty and Herrema is now palpable and is clearly affecting the group’s judgement. Royal Trux’s genius was always in the unique interplay of their respective personalities. “Neil, of course, was Keith, with that blues-inflected guitar, all swagger and strut and languorous leads,” wrote Nickas. “But Jennifer was something else entirely, an impossibly triangulated composite of Mick and Keith and Anita Pallenberg – the original ‘Sister Morphine.’” Herrema and Hagerty are clearly a million miles apart now, and as their camaraderie has died so has their creative sympathy.

Before their reunion, both artists were making better music outside of Royal Trux than they are now inside of it. Herrema’s Black Bananas project has allowed her to indulge more freely in the funked up cock rock that Trux occasionally hinted at but never fully encapsulated, especially on 2012 Rad Times Xpress IV. Hagerty’s other bands, such as his collaboration with Ian Svenonious, Weird War, and even more so his mainstay project, The Howling Hex, have allowed him to establish himself as a bonafide guitar hero of the bizarre and unsettling. His collaboration with Nate Young of Wolf Eyes and Alexander Moskos of AIDS Wolf and Drainolith, 2014’s Dan’l Boone, allowed Hagerty to push his musical talents further into the abyss than any project he’s ever done.

So why do we need more Royal Trux? If the best the band is capable of is the tepid and over-produced White Stuff and this Quantum Entanglement collection that emphasises the more anodyne elements of Trux’s body of work, one has to wonder “why? What is the point of this?”

I’ve always agreed with Christopher Lasch that a retreat from excessive focus on progress might be beneficial to society. But in the context of Royal Trux and the band’s inability to push their sound further, to progress further, the group’s legacy is at stake. I never thought that artists with as much idiosyncratic spirit as Herrema and Hagerty would indulge a reunion for the sake of a cynical cash-in. But, nevertheless, here we are.