While I'd never heard of Massachusetts-based electro rock outfit Wolfmen of Mars until recently, I'll admit they'd already seized my interest at their self-description. They list their primary influences as electronic film scores from the '70s and '80s, and the scores of John Carpenter in particular, but unlike similar bands like Zombi and Giallos Flame (long-time faves of mine), who tend to lovingly recreate the sounds of specific eras and genres, this band uses that inspiration as a springboard for a more unique form of gritty, heavy-beat rock.
The Wolfmen are a fairly recent arrival, having emerged last summer with their first full-length album debut Murder at the Lunar Motel, but they definitely made up for lost time by dropping their follow-up album We're Gonna Die Either Way just six months later. That record was a step forward in developing a warmly nostalgic but also undeniably dark and heavy sound – and was followed by yet another release, the four-track digital EP titled Spaced Summer, which molded the retro-synth groove into a Halloween party-rock theme with cuts like “Dreading Sundown,” “Beach House Invasion” and “Sand in Your Bikini,” and included a “Summer Slasher” remix of the album track "Martians/In a Trunk."
The Wolfmen return this summer with their third full-length release Universal Madness, which already scored major points with me for the amazing cover by artist/designer Patrick Carson Sparrow before I'd even pressed play. That artwork hints at the darkly festive mood that carried much of Spaced Summer, and that feeling definitely comes across in this album's opening cuts "Watching the Body Turn Blue" and "What It Is & Where You Can Find It," where warm synth purrs and hums form the basis for simple, lively major-key guitar/keyboard riffs, boosted by live drums and assorted percussion across a wide range of styles, from metal to European-style progressive rock and pop.
Most of the songs on Universal Madness follow a similar structure, establishing a catchy hook with the synth melody and then picking up and running with it. Live drums and other percussion play a key role in shaping the sound and grounding it in a rock structure (much like Zombi's early recordings) with the electronics handling melodic duties... except when it's time to get spooky, on atmospheric tracks like "The Ungodly Hour" and “Signal from Beyond,” which blend samples from horror/sci-fi movies and haunted house records with some eerie synth and guitar noodling. Pure metal riffage comes out to play on tracks like "Vs.," where it blends with ghostly theremin wails, and there's a sweet fusion of '70s-era Goblin with a touch of glam-rock in the simple but hooky groove of "Make Your Own Monster.”
The distinctly Carpenter-flavored tones (think Assault on Precinct 13 or Escape from New York) come through on "Audio Lobotio," though it regrettably fades out just as the rhythm really gets going. A cool sawtooth synth riff drives the dark and brooding "Ellington's Trip," which is strongly reminiscent of lo-fi UK synth rockers Add N to (X), and there's a floaty, trance-like feel to the synth layers of "La Stomaché" that creates a tense and effective counter-balance to the frantic live breakbeat drumming, which again maintains more of a refreshing and spontaneous energy than a (typically) looped rhythm would. The album closes with the creepy "October '82," which simulates a vintage '70s dark rock groove before busting into an intense up-tempo keyboard sequence, filters warping the riffs into strange but inviting shapes.
Through clean, no-frills production and a devotion to solid hooks and organic beats, Werewolves of Mars manage to drive home their melodies just as effectively as bigger-name acts who draw inspiration from the same wellspring, and while their genre influences are easy to identify, it's clear they're not simply banking on nostalgia for '70s and '80s synth scores. It didn't take the band long to find their groove, and with Universal Madness, they're now comfortable mixing and matching styles to fit an established synth-rock framework that puts the emphasis on melody... and it's pretty damn danceable too.
Universal Madness is available Thursday, August 1st via iTunes and Amazon, as well as the band's official Bandcamp page, where you can also listen to tracks from the previous albums & EPs. Here's one of their new cuts, “Ellington's Trip,” with suitably psychedelic visual accompaniment: