The idea that a change of something as seemingly inconsequential as the format on which an album is presented (be it CD, cassette, vinyl record or mp3) can change the listening experience completely may seem unbelievable, but that does not mean it isn’t true and cannot happen. Of course the medium (format) that one is listening to can make a difference in how the music sounds or how it translates – every musical format has its limitations – and a listener’s impression of what they’ve heard can be changed based on that difference.
A great example of that fact (some might claim “inconvenient truth”) is present on the vinyl release of Magick Spells by Gateway Drugs. While the track lists of both the CD and vinyl releases are the same (and, presumably, the same production job was done for both as well – because there is no difference listed in the liner notes of either), they most certainly don’t feel the same in listening – at least, the two copies that this critic has didn’t.
The difference in the vibe and disposition of my vinyl copy of Magick Spells became apparent as soon as the sonorous feedback introduction of album opener “Anu” faded out and both Gabe Niles’ rough drums (which ring with reverb and air here) and the slithering line by bassist Blues Williams picked up. There’s still a vibe similar to The Stooges about the song, but it also feels a little more sinister than its CD counterpart did; that bass line coupled with the doubled vocal performances by Noa and Liv Niles feels a bit like The Stooges meets My Bloody Valentine and the Brian Jonestown Massacre all at once – it’s a little dark, a little eerie and a little grainy and all intoxicating. An argument regarding whether the better sound appears on the CD or the vinyl could go on indefinitely, but suffice it to say that those who mark the difference will recognize how compelling it is.
The energy level set by “Anu” does not dip as “Mommy” follows, but it definitely shifts gears and directions. No less passively antagonizing but certainly more frayed, the guitars provide a different kind of sparkling menace which perfectly complements the dismissive tone of lyrics like “Do your dance yeah til you can trust/ Everyone will make their fuss, your opinion/ It’s your opinion” and lets the rhythm section drive it all down listeners’ collective throat perfectly. It’s all dismissive, aggressive and anthemic like the alt-rock monoliths borne of the nineties – halfway between The Lemonheads and the incarnation of Sebadoh which featured Russell Pollard.
Perhaps just to prove they can, Gateway Drugs goes positively radio-ready on the droney-anthemic powerhouse which spikes in the middle of Magick Spells‘ A-side (“Fridays Are For Suckers”) before diving even deeper into their sort of stoned alt-rock melange for “Head.” The track is a strange beast, but it’s a strangely epic one; Williams plugs that sinewy but sweet and rolling bass back in here and uses it to push along a dense but very wooden acoustic guitar, and the combination is excellent – a little stoned and a little surly, but very addictive above all.
To close out the side, Gateway Drugs turns the volume (as well as the mix’s mid-range) back up and so amplifies the hooky one-liners (“I’m the cross you forgot to wear” and “Lay my hand upon your head/ I’ll make you believe/ Hold your hand cause God is dead/ Lose yourself cause you’re not worth saving” are a couple of choice selections here) on “Faith Healer” to make sure uninitiated listeners remember them. The song really is a good side-ender; it’s a little crass (talk of “Ritual monkies and Jesus junkies” almost feels like a calculated step too far – guaranteed to get attention), but not so much that it might turn listeners off enough to not flip the record over. In that way, “Faith Healer” betrays a maturity that some bands NEVER develop, but hitting the nerve just right as Gateway Drugs does here on their debut album is virtually unheard of. It really is a bit of magic.
The stardust in which “Faith Healer” is coated is thick enough that it carries over and leaves a residue on “I’m In Love With A Teenage Heartthrob” too! There, Liv Niles steals the lead vocal seat away from brother Noa and shows listeners that his golden vocal chords are a family trait and that she’s capable of succoring a lot of attention when she really wants to. Here, Liv apes an early Queens of the Stone Age pose(“I Was A Teenage Hand Model” anyone?) but really owns it with her doe-eyed vocal tone and lined like “Now I’ll steal your heart this time/ I’ll waste your time like you did mine” before just lobbing the mic back to her brother after her point’s been made. The ease is astounding and almost disquieting, really.
After “Teenage Heartthrob” plays through, Gateway Drugs has its audience won. The A-side of the album and that one song from the B-side must have been enough to bring even some of the hardest-hearted listeners to their knees but, even so, the band adds a few more tracks for good measure, to make a full-length album rather than an EP. There’s really no arguing that “Echolalia” and Black Wine Of The Soul” don’t just fill time but, to the band’s credit, they don’t feel completely phoned in, and “Cavity Creeps” and “Magick Spells” leave a mark memorable enough at the end of the side that listeners will walk away satisfied by Magick Spells and excited to see what might come next from the band. Compared to the A-side of Magick Spells, the B- couldn’t really stand on its own, but it rounds the album out very nicely and doesn’t let the energy lapse irredeemably.
Reading the above discussion back, it’s easy to note the differences left by the CD and vinyl releases of Magick Spells. It could be contended that all the vinyl would require is a bit of re-sequencing to retain the same levels that its CD counterpart has but, at the same time, it’s hard to trade the fetish quality of the vinyl for the convenience of a CD. A listener’s choice of format is an impasse which will boil down to personal preference or taste, but that doesn’t mean anyone should think twice about the quality of the album. The music truly is awesome stuff.
Magick Spells is out now on two different vinyl pressings – one black and one white. You can buy the white vinyl via the group’s website (http://gatewaydrugsband.com/s-t-o-r-e/).