OK, so hands up all those who thought this fine thing would ever see the light of day? Pah, ye of little faith. Five years or so down the line from their tantalisingly brief early sets, and two years since it was recorded, Power Grab arrives. That it does so as a budget-priced download-only release, rather than the deluxe double-vinyl, gatefold sleeve with Rhodri and Bernie in Kiss make-up edition it deserves, is a brazen indictment of the times we find ourselves in. Small beer, ultimately, though, as it manages to do the near-impossible; neatly capturing the precision-tooled playfulness of the most memorable RHLH gigs (Swn 2008, Clwb with Islet in 2009, Green Man 2009, Norwegian Church with Rangda in 2010… choose your own), cherry-picking their best moments to date and leaving you unreasonably eager for a swift follow-up.
The template for the album’s carefully-positioned peaks is a carefully constructed bed of simple yet crushingly effective riffs, bass and rhythm parts overlaid with insidious lead guitar and powerhouse drumming. The joy of those sporadic, brilliant live shows, captured so well here, is in the thrill found in subtle variation and the playful creativity with which they tease and stretch the core ideas into supple new shapes. You know them, even if you don’t think you know them. ‘The Capgras Delusion’ is a monolithic, magnificent opening shot, its enormous, serpentine riff and its jerky, Battles-y sibling writhing in and out of a squalling morass of guitar noise. Shuddering, propulsive kick-drums marshal it to a conclusion that’s both a thrill and a disappointment; like the inimitable ‘Stanislav Petrov’ and its triumphant, lumbering core riff, it could go on for twenty minutes and never outstay its welcome.
The trick is repeated on ‘Coincident XY’, another crushingly simple riff that builds and expands in all directions for a full four minutes. ‘Bugatti’, meanwhile, is its gloriously gonzoid peak; if a song could ride horseback through a burning village, this would be it. Relentless, irresistably catchy, with a gorgeously plangent, proggy middle eight, the album’s first true vocal is so perfectly timed it’s unreal. Muscular, lofty and thrillingly effective, this is RHLH in excelsis – visualise them swapping instruments, piling loop upon loop with dextrous glee, and you’re grinning uncontrollably.
What you do get from their Breaking The Magician’s Code-style deconstruction of the songs live, though, is an understanding of the breadth of inspirations and styles they call on. Always eschewing the by-numbers orthodoxy of a lot of post-rock, the mathy pounding of Trans Am or Maserati looms large but there’s far more besides. ‘Nub City’ is muscular and punchy, recalling Shellac’s mastery of dynamics and space. Multiple loops fold in and out, nut-tight and aggressive, before they’re blasted to the four winds as the band ‘play’ the muted riffs on circuit-bent home technology. ‘The Teignmouth Electron’ is all parched, bluesy riffing and insistent pummelling, evoking Kyuss or even Led Zeppelin. Hoary rock classicism in less capable hands, here the dextrous touch and muffled, foreboding vocals are a joy. It’s that magpie creativity that effortlessly lifts them above their peers; the manipulation and distortion they subject the loops to, the instrument-swapping, the confluence of styles with Ratatosk’s anguished vocals and slow-build orchestral scree and Vito’s delicate, expansive post-rock. Some of Power Grab‘s finest moments are in these departures, be it the snaking guitar solo and swirling noise of ‘Ferdinandea’ or the closing ‘Darvaz’, subtle, stately and evocative like ’90s lost greats Billy Mahonie or Rothko. There’s a second album on the way early next year, they reckon; grab this, and everything else they do, with both hands. Hopfully, with the next one, you’ll actually be able to do that.
Massive thanks to Right Hand Left Hand for providing us with a track-by-track guide to the album. Part studio diary, part history lesson, always entertaining. They’re not all about cycling, you know…
1. The Capgras Delusion
This is a name for a mental disorder, in which the afflicted is convinced that a friend or loved one as been replaced by an identical imposter. Closely related to the Cotard delusion, in which the patient believes they’re already dead. This song is quite chaotic to play – the drummer’s riff alongside his mental drumming, the guitarist building up other riffs one note at a time, soloing, muting and finally screaming into the pickups.
2. The Teignmouth Electron
The name of Donald Crowhurst’s boat – he, along with 8 others, took part in the first non-stop round-the-world boat race in the 60s – only one finished. The race has informed a number of songs for RHLH and Ratatosk, and the story is expertly told in the documentary film Deep Water. A bit more of a rock swagger to this song, the guitarist attempts a Josh Homme impression on guitar and vocals, while the drummer manipulates time itself. The lyrics are taken from and inspired by Crowhurst’s journals, written after he’d lost his mind.
3. Stanislav Petrov
Stanislav Petrov – a man who refused to panic when his Russian computer systems showed that nuclear warheads were on their way to the USSR. He recognised it as a computer glitch, and so the soviet missiles remained unlaunched, instead of heading westward. This is the first RHLH song – it’s almost our theme song. One riff and a whole world of possibilities.
4. Jerry Fuchs
RIP Jerry Fuchs, drummer of Maserati (among others) – one of the only instrumental bands I have any time for these days. We were both big fans, and Inventions of the New Season is one of the great instrumental rock records.
We love Maserati so much we ripped them off and called it Bugatti. An unyielding, swaggering, pillaging beast of a riff, that gets more unpleasant as the song goes on. The drumming is so good here, the guitarist doesn’t have to do that much.
A slower, more contemplative song, which is basically one long solo. Ferdinandea is an occasional island in the Mediterranean. A volcano erupts – Ferdinandea forms – Ferdinandea quickly erodes to leave a submerged volcano again. After erupting in 1831, it was the subject of a conflict between the British, French and Italians before it disappeared a few months later without a resolution being reached. In 1986, American bombers mistook it for a Libyan submarine and bombed it.
7. Coincident XY
Is a way microphones are set up. Our second ever song – we spent so long in rehearsals playing this and Stanislav, we realised out first gig was coming up and we didn’t have any other songs. It even has some lyrics, decrying hipster twatheads who maintain that Tweez is better than Spiderland, when that’s clearly fucking nonsense. People who maintain that On Avery Island is better than In the Aeroplane Over the Sea have a stronger argument, but are still wrong.
8. Nub City
Along with ‘Capgras’, it was among our first songs written with multiple loops that built up through the song. The muting section at the end was made possible thanks to a chap called Bien, who made the pedals for us out of used records.
The town of Vernon, Florida (subject of a film by Errol Morris) was notorious for having a huge national percentage of insurance claims on lost limbs, many of them believed to be deliberate – as a result, it became known as nub city. We became obsessed by this story. If I may, an article sums it up better than I can:
L.W. Burdeshaw, an insurance agent in Chipley, told the St. Petersburg Times in 1982 that his list of policyholders included the following: a man who sawed off his left hand at work, a man who shot off his foot while protecting chickens, a man who lost his hand while trying to shoot a hawk, a man who somehow lost two limbs in an accident involving a rifle and a tractor, and a man who bought a policy and then, less than 12 hours later, shot off his foot while aiming at a squirrel.
“There was another man who took out insurance with 28 or 38 companies,” said Murray Armstrong, an insurance official for Liberty National. “He was a farmer and ordinarily drove around the farm in his stick shift pickup. This day – the day of the accident – he drove his wife’s automatic transmission car and he lost his left foot. If he’d been driving his pickup, he’d have had to use that foot for the clutch. He also had a tourniquet in his pocket. We asked why he had it and he said, ‘Snakes. In case of snake bite.’ He’d taken out so much insurance he was paying premiums that cost more than his income. He wasn’t poor, either. Middle class. He collected more than $1-million from all the companies. It was hard to make a jury believe a man would shoot off his foot.”
Woah, the drummer is on guitar, and the guitarist is on drums! Our first experiment with proper instrument swapping (the drummer has always been nifty enough on the guitar to coin and perform several RHLH riffs, this is the first time the guitarist took his place) produced this tune. To me, it sounds like late 90s post rock, which is when the genre still meant something and was genuinely original. So yeah, we like it.
Darvaz is a region of Turkmenistan that experienced a mining accident in 1971. A drilling rig collapsed into a cavern, leaving a large. To avoid the discharge of poisonous gas they set fire to it, hoping it would burn up in a few days. 40 years later it’s still burning, and it’s known as “the door to hell” – which is where we leave you.