Royal Headache get High
Musical trends evolve at varying rates. Four years is a long time in pop, and about four months in garage rock. Little has changed in the latter world since Royal Headache released their self-titled debut, but the band hasn’t been dormant. There was a North American tour in 2012. They released the single “Stand and Stare” in 2013, filling time in between albums while hinting at the direction this one would move in. They came perilously close to splitting up last year, with frontman Shogun agreeing to continue only until a new record was complete. What caused this tension is unknown but it seems to have been resolved – Shogun has confirmed that he’s happy to stay.
“My Own Fantasy” makes for an inauspicious beginning. Neither dreams of rock stardom nor revelations of their emptiness hold much potential for interest nowadays, while the chord changes are too predictable to transcend this often-covered topic. But just at the end an organ becomes audible, which you soon realise has been there all along. The instrument first appeared on Royal Headache highlight “Honey Joy”, and it gives them a point of difference from likeminded Australian groups.
Organ plays a more prominent role in “Need You”, taking over the melody when the vocals pause for rest. Here, the band’s affection for soul music – once evident more in press than in practice – shines through, with traces of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”. Shogun’s vocals propel the song, including a moment of magic where he repeatedly shrieks the title while running though a minor pentatonic scale.
Not to sell the other members short, for they contribute much to the vigorous sound of High, but Shogun possesses unique qualities. His powerful growl is made doubly effective by its sparing use. In “Another World” he saves it up for the last bar of each chorus, with every yell more abrasive than the one before. Snare rolls from drummer Shortty build anticipation, and the climactic cry of “YEEEEAAAAH-eeeeaaaahhh-AYY!” is thrilling. The decision to mix vocals, well, higher this time around adds clarity to these details.
Bookended by punk and exploring a range of slower modes in between, the tracklist is smartly sequenced. But welcome as the changes of pace are, they bring mixed results. “Carolina” underwhelms. Starting a melody with a borrowed phrase is perfectly acceptable, though when it’s a phonetic match for the source song (“Caroline” by Adelaide rockers Bad//Dreems), the new one tends to suffer. Aware of the resemblance, Shogun shows his sense of humour by slipping in a nod to Neil Diamond. Much more convincing is “Wouldn’t You Know”, featuring a winding guitar riff, key changes, a sprinkling of synth and their best chorus to date.
In a scene sometimes over-reliant on retro blueprints, Royal Headache have carved out a space for themselves. A great compilation could be made from the cream of their two LPs, but consistency remains an issue. Even so, their strongest work makes garage rock fresh again through sheer force of personality. There’s life in the old style yet.