written by Chris Familton
Every new release these days seems to get tagged with the ‘much anticipated’ curse yet thankfully there are still albums that rightfully deserve premature praise. In terms of local acts, Royal Headache are long overdue for a full length LP having played around Sydney’s garages, halls, pubs and clubs for the last few years. Anyone who has seen them live can attest to the brittle energy they bring to their music – that heady rush of chiming guitars and punchy bass topped off with Shogun’s magnificent soul howl.
The challenge was always going to be how the quartet would convert that live atmosphere and for the most part they have done so extremely effectively. Either they had really shitty gear and recording equipment or the decision was made to forgo studio sheen and sonic reward and try to replicate the kind of sounds you hear when a band plays loud and recklessly in a space where audio quality isn’t a feature. When volume meets garage roller doors, wooden floors and low ceilings the results can be both harsh and gloriously damaged. It is that scratchy, verging on ‘needle in the red’ quality that the album has where you can only crank the volume to certain levels before discomfort sets in. You want to hear it loud but there is a price to pay with the only saving grace being the 26 minute album length. In taking this approach (as Straight Arrows also did on their debut) they have ensured a gritty honesty comes across in the music, the confidence that the songs will shine through the static – and they do. So while the sound of the record serves a purpose let’s hope it doesn’t necessarily become a prerequisite for future recordings.
At its core this album is a pop record. Sure it is coated in garage rock, punk and power pop but at it’s heart the driving force is melody, hooks and getting to the point as quickly as possible. The subject matter revolves around girls, love, dealing with being young and hanging out – all classic signifiers of great debut albums. Really In Love sets the early tone with its 60s pop meets The Jam urgency. This is simple stuff but the dynamics they pack into 1.43 is quite astounding. The driving bass during the middle eight and then the spotlight on the guitar that follows is a mammoth shifting of air that challenges the listener to not be physically moved.
Along with The Jam there is a strong debt to The Strokes and they way they cross referenced the various strains of garage rock across the decades. Both bands show great economy and a magic way of controlling the anger and romance in their music. The counterpoints to the more frenetic songs are Honey Joy and Down The Lane which rolls and tumbles along while documenting the tribulations of young love. It feels nostalgic, upbeat yet melancholic and ultimately it feels effortlessly identifiable.
Singer Shogun is the unique x-factor in the sound of Royal Headache. The guitar is near perfectly balanced and the bass throws some brilliant melodic curveballs that underscore the strength of the band’s rhythm section but it is the singer’s unabashed dedication to emoting his lyrics with a mix of Jimmy Barnes’ straining bark and holler and Kevin Rowland’s (Dexy’s Midnight Runners) northern soul singing that makes this album so contagious. You get no sense of posturing or knowing cultivation of a stage persona with Shogun. He comes across as a straight shooting frontman who possesses a righteous voice that dials in perfectly with the music of the other three musicians.
The sign that the band doesn’t rely disproportionately on their singer comes in the form of the couple of instrumentals. In particular Wilson Street is an endearing dip into tropical, jazzy beat music. You could imagine Shogun serenading an ode to the Newtown arterial route but it easily stands on its own as a song to keep coming back to.
Royal Headache have courted debate with the way they have recorded and formatted the sound of their music but the undeniable fact is that the songs that underpin the album are pure gold. Most are nuggets of concise pop artistry that deserve to be recognised as such, given how accurately they capture a specific mood and communicate it with honesty and humility. As well as being much anticipated Royal Headache have produced an exceptionally rewarding first album.
this review was first published on FasterLouder