If you keep up with my music reviews (and I just know you do), you probably know how picky I can get when it comes to horror-punk and psychobilly bands... mostly because there's just so damn many of them. It takes a strong repeater to rise to the top (yeah, I know that sounded kinda dirty), and they have to rock like there's no tomorrow to get my attention – but most importantly they need to bring something new to the game. One scrappy hard-working trio from Detroit has managed to achieve all of the above: Koffin Kats have a loyal fan following, they love touring and claim to have played more than a thousand gigs in their eight-year career, so I figured they must be doing it for the love (which they should), but I needed to know how that dedication comes across in their music. Which brings me to today, with their latest full-length release Our Way & The Highway in my hairy paws, and I'll break it down for you. Check out a full review below the fold, and stick around for a music video while you're here...
Ever since their formation in 2003, the Kats have a rep for keeping a relentless tour schedule, and their undying love of the road – not to mention partying like madmen – is the high-toned beast that drives this record, which is wall-to-wall with songs about boozing, rocking and ripping across all the highways of the world. Comprised of lead vocalist Vic Victor – who wields the highest caliber of psychobilly weapons, the upright bass – with guitarist/vocalist EZ Ian and drummer Eric "E Ball" Walls – the band has risen up from the underground to tour with genre heavyweights like the Nekromantix (another FEARnet fave... check out our review of their latest album here) and they've managed to release six albums of strong material in less than a decade, so their enthusiasm obviously isn't just limited to live performance.
For me, two things distinguish the Kats from the endless armies of Misfits wannabes. The first and most important is their vocal approach: Victor's baritone is surprisingly smooth (as Glenn Danzig channels Jim Morrison, Victor summons the specter of Elvis), giving their psychobilly swagger and rough-and-rowdy punk anthems an unusual elegance, and the vocal harmonies between him and EZ are technically tight and musically unique. Second, with this album in particular, the band manages to steer clear of the usual horror-punk songwriting themes about surfing vampires and Harley-humping werewolves in favor of gritty realism, casting themselves in the role of demonic outlaw party-hounds in a rocking grindhouse flick.
Photo by Carl Cederman
It's a rare thing when a psychobilly band can bring manic energy to moodier songs, but I'd even say that's where this trio is at their strongest – and the beefy, ominous opening track "Riding High" is solid proof. But they can still light up a devil-may-care party song, and "The Way of the Road" is one of the most fun offerings on the album (be sure to check out the video below), and the first of many love songs to the highway. There's a crazed roadhouse edge to "It Happens Every Night," a hilarious chronicle of party-to-you-drop excess with a wicked breakdown, and "Severing Ties" spins an effective tale of lost love thanks to velvety vocal harmonies in the chorus. "For the Good Times" says "screw all that romantic shit," and goes for the gusto with lightning riffs from EZ and even a beer-bottle percussion section. "The Devil Asked" is one of the few direct nods to horror on the album, but I'll be damned if they didn't pull it off in a wild way, featuring spooky spoken-word verse sections and a sweet bridge solo. I know these songs are traditionally supposed to be short, but I wanted this one to last a lot longer.
"Keep it Coming" doesn't really distinguish itself creatively from most other psychobilly stompers, but "Choke" makes up for it with a fusion of vintage and modern punk styles. Another musical and lyrical powerhouse, and another of my favorites on the record, is "A Terrible Way" – which slides effortlessly from heartfelt ballad verses to chaotic riffs and dusty spaghetti western acoustic breakdowns, all working together to depict a bloody murder spree. "The Bottle Called" straps on the old rockabilly swagger, but the melody has a great dark edge, which is later blended with punk choruses in "Baby Don't Love You," but not as sucessfully. "Locket of Sin" is a groovy south-of-the-border gothic complete with mariachi-style intro, and "Boozincrossanation" is a frantic explosion of bass slaps and raging vocals that sits apart from most of the other songs here, but it's just too insane not to like. The album wraps with "Don't Waste Your Time," demonstrating again how this band brings wild energy to the most brooding of melodies, though I'd say they handle this better on the opening track.
Now that I've stumbled upon the Kats, I've been exploring their back catalog for more gems, but Our Way & The Highway is a perfect introduction thanks to its mix of old-school arrangements and modern production, bringing the best of both worlds to one of the best psychobilly acts I've heard in a long time. Give 'em a spin yourself and let me know if you agree... and be sure to start with this clip for "The Way of the Road."