Somewhere between the five full-length albums and a decade-long road test across the highways of the world, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club found their way.
Eleven years after bassist Robert Levon Been and guitarist Peter Hayes started playing gigs around their hometown of San Francisco, the duo has now started over, with a new vision, a new drummer, and the gift of a future unknown.
The sound of Beat The Devil's Tattoo comes from everywhere and nowhere- it draws a map and embarks on a sonic road trip through American music; from howling front porch stomps on the Chattanooga and beer-sloshing Texas roadhouse rockouts, to swaggering proto-punk sneering in NYC's basement bars.
For six months, Hayes, Been and new drummer Leah Shapiro, holed up in a basement studio together, during one of the coldest winters in recent history. In this house outside Philadelphia —the same place Howl was penned — they built their first album as a new band from the ground up. "It was like a family again, living together and working really closely like that," Been says. "Something happened to us out there though, I'm not sure if we beat back our demons, or if we just let them take us over completely. But strange days make for strange times."
Shapiro replaced longtime BRMC drummer Nick Jago behind the set, bringing a newfound sense of professionalism, which she honed from playing with the Danish rockers, The Raveonettes.
"She knows how to watch when she plays," Hayes says, "there's intuition and there's the ability to watch our body language as we're really going to dig into something."
With Shapiro on board, the band recorded in Los Angeles at the Station House, tracking all basic tracks in a shocking four days.
"We wrote over 23 songs for this record and the hardest thing about it was probably narrowing it down to a final 13 track album," Been says. "There's just a strange effortlessness now, which I haven't felt since we recorded our first album. It's just got that kind of nervous, kind of excited, kind of unsure feeling, where we don't know where it's gonna go next, so everyone just stands out of the way."
Beat The Devil's Tattoo stirs with a raw sexual energy, melting down their previous four records, and forging a style that encompasses them all. The firebrand fuzz bass from their first two albums B. R.M. C. and Take Them On, On Your Own emerges on "Shadows Keeper," and "Aya," Howl's acoustic driven, edgy Americana is ever-present on "Long Way Down" and the title track, "Beat the Devil's Tattoo."
Like the title of the album, a phrase gleaned from Edgar Allen Poe's 1839 short story, "The Devil In The Belfry," BRMC stands on the edge of darkness, but never dives in.
"Leah had given me a book of Poe short stories and I'd immersed myself in it. The one phrase 'Beat The Devils Tattoo' leaped out at me though for some reason. I read up on it and found that it originally meant 'the beat of a drum or a bugle signaling soldiers to return to their camps after dark'. But it's a very old lost phrase. These days, I guess it's used whenever anyone anxiously drums their fingers on a table or taps their foot on the ground incessantly, they're 'beating the devil's tattoo.'"
With songs of self-destruction and redemption, of heartbreak and ecstatic love, Beat The Devil's Tattoo traverses much emotional ground. Like Poe's American Gothic style, the album infuses the soaring spirit of Southern folk with lowdown grit of bijou blues. The slide-guitars and tambourine stomp of "River Styx" brings us "to the water's edge where every sin has been washed away." The dusty howls opening "Conscience Killer" evoke a fire-and-brimstone preacher leading the choir at an Alabama big-top revival.
The piano piece, "Annabel Lee," beautifully ends the UK album with the adaptation of Poe's story of everlasting love beyond the grave.
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
Like the best balladeers, like Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, and Lou Reed, BRMC, translates feelings into sound, and sound into lyrics that sets off on moody journeys deep into the soul.
"We wouldn't be in a band if people were saying what was in my head, the way I need it heard," Hayes says, "The only thing that satisfies inner reconciliation is music, spitting it out, making and creating ourselves."
BRMC's ceaseless drive to create, to tell stories of redemption and aching desire, keeps them going. It's an addiction, an unquenchable thirst appeased only by the undying love of rock and roll.
"To me music connects everyone and everything, that is the light," Been says, "If we're able to write something, and someone can relate to it, or feel something from it, the light is blinding."