Marco Minnemann has been my favourite drummer for many years now, always exciting, everything he does is worthy of attention, and this debut album with guitarist and songwriter Randy McStine is no exception. The duo take on multi-instrumentalist roles to create an entertaining and punchy record of short melodic songs that retain the firepower you’d expect.
Marco seems to have a new album out with someone every couple of weeks, and until the pandemic put paid to such things (for the time being at least) has been a frequent flyer with The Aristocrats of late. Randy McStine may be familiar from his band Lo-Fi Resistance, but he has also been playing with Nick D’Virgilio and Jonas Reingold as The Fringe and was scheduled to replace Dave Gregory to play live shows with Big Big Train, but alas, not this year.
The duo first met in 2018 and immediately discovered a shared love of rock, pop and punk and soon decided to work on something together, initially an EP, but this soon became an album as the creativity flowed, bringing in their various shared influences with the intention of forging a tuneful and engaging collection of songs with enough depth to keep them interesting.
This is a duo album in every sense with the two taking on all instrumental and vocal duties, and nailing them, it has to be said. The blend of rocky progressive pop with a punky edge and effects driven keys is a fun listen, the compact and high energy songs still managing to find space for dexterous musicianship, and they can certainly pen a hooky melody too. They pitch the songs at the centre of the Venn diagram taking in XTC, Mr. Bungle, The Police, Queen and Frank Zappa – if there were such a thing – and you can see where they’re coming from.
Program, the first-fruits single, explores the impact of technology in the modern world. Randy first recorded the song in 2013, but returned to it last year: “I thought this would be really great to do [with Marco] if we kick up the energy a bit and take it to a Devo-esque sound. I’m super excited about how it came out!” From Marco’s perspective, “the whole track has a real driving energy to it and I think, as an album opener, it sets the stage for most of the musical elements that are to follow.” The drums are to the fore straight away and it’s industrial pop with a pleasing Cardiacs-like sense to it, the tower teetering near collapse, but with the reassurance that it never will. Randy puts in a good vocal and there are nice guitar figures in this compact and fun track, starting as they mean to go on with songs in the two to four minute zone. The ‘vertical video’ is fun too…
Upfront punky bass gives a snarky edge to Falling From Grace, but with honeyed harmony vocals, and MM drums to the max, natch. It’s fiddly and witty but a world away from The Aristocrats, Marco, as always, adept at fitting his technique into accessible songs that have enough instrumental clout to garner wide appeal. Sinister piano takes an unexpected path to the dark side toward the end.
Your Offenses, the second single, is another winner, flying out of the traps on keys, drums and bass. The guitar work is excellent, as is the piano augmented chorus, all breaking down with some dirty, gritty soloing. Randy: “We didn’t make a ‘punk rock’ record, but I feel like the core of it is very much in that spirit. The bass and drums have a Police-like presence and I really love the way the song turned out!” In the writing process, it was the bridge section of this song that confirmed to Randy that they were both on the same page.
It’s ridiculously accessible, and proof (if any were needed) that tricksy talent does not preclude a poptastic end-result.
In marked contrast, Catrina has funky bass, dark vocals and a creepy, crisp melody. The vocals soar on harmonies, but the structures are unorthodox. Top of the Bucket is all frenetic drums and exemplary chiming guitars – tasty stuff – while Tear the Walls Down (No Memories) is chunky, stuttering, riffy rock, almost from another time, but with crisp drums and a powerful McStine vocal. Pounding but at the same time intricate, again spooky and with a nice guitar solo that mingles beautifully with piano to the fade.
Atmospheric vocals drive Fly, the album’s swaying stately centrepiece, a toe-tapper with FX and keys, while the groovesome intro to Activate is akin to Aristocrats, Randy’s vocal taking it elsewhere with funky chops and a winningly upbeat chorus. But is there room for a contemplative piano ballad? Why, of course! And The Closer is it, with slide guitars it’s a fab little tune. Finally the power drive of Voyager to finish, a four minute ‘epic’ of groovy metal and massive Zappa soloing with big finish harmony vocals.
This pair obviously have the chops, but they also understand the power of sophisticated pop and are adaptable enough to deliver this often quirky material in a direct way. It’s punchy and fun with all the instrumental pizzazz that any self-respecting enthusiast would wish for, but with a sense of melody and a poppy ethic that is often alien to ‘muso’ albums. These guys can pen a good hooky melody while twisting it in any direction they want, or just playing it straight – as that’s what won’t be expected!
01. Program (2:40)
02. Falling From Grace (3:44)
03. Your Offenses (3:27)
04. Catrina (3:37)
05. Top of the Bucket (3:30)
06. Tear the Walls Down (No Memories) (3:05)
07. Fly (3:48)
08. Activate (3:39)
09. The Closer (2:24)
10. Voyager (4:42)
Total Time – 34:36
Randy McStine – Vocals, Guitar, Bass, Keyboards, FX
Marco Minnemann – Drums, Percussion, Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards, FX
Record Label: Independent
Country of Origin: U.S.A./Germany
Date of Release: 3rd July 2020