Until now, Devil’s Brigade was almost nothing more than a curiosity. The trio, led by Rancid/Operation Ivy bassist Matt Freeman, first popped up on the Hellcat Records compilation Give ‘Em The Boot III back in 2002 with the song “Vampire Girl,” a psychobilly burner that found Freeman slapping away furiously at a stand-up bass as opposed to his usual electric four-stringer. A couple of Devil’s Brigade 12-inches popped up on Rancid Records, but with Freeman’s dedication to Rancid, in addition to time spent touring with Social Distortion taking priority, Devil’s Brigade seemed destined to be permanently filed into the “side project” category.
Eight years after their first appearance, Freeman is joined once again by longtime Rancid bandmate Tim Armstrong and X drummer DJ Bonebrake to create this collection of songs, which benefits from some context. According to interviews, the original concept of this album came from when Armstrong approached Freeman with an idea for a musical about the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. While that concept was later aborted, six songs from the endeavor remained, along with six re-recorded tracks from original Devil’s Brigade demos. Therefore, Devil’s Brigade seems more like an attempt to re-introduce Freeman’s project rather than an actual album. When viewed through that prism, it works, mostly.
What’s undeniable about Devil’s Brigade is that it acts as yet another showcase for the 20-plus-year musical relationship between Armstrong and Freeman, and it finds the duo in top form. Freeman seems less concerned with the brand of finger-snapping technicality he’s built his reputation on, instead laying down both stand-up and electric bass lines that weave in and below Armstrong’s especially kinetic guitar work. It’s the most stripped-down setup the two have worked with since Rancid’s first self-titled album in 1993, and each of them turn in great performances, as evidenced in the opening combo of “I’m Movin’ Through” and “My Own Man Now,” the latter of which ends in an almost hardcore breakdown. The trio tears through a re-recorded version of “Vampire Girl” with the familiarity of an old standard, ratcheting up the tempo to insane levels, enhancing the song’s classic psychobilly imagery.
It’s when the songs that were obviously written for the musical pop up that things get a little sketchy. There’s a real vitality to the more straightforward punk ragers, which makes cuts like the mandolin augmented “Bridge Of Gold” that much more jarring. Freeman’s gravelly bark and Armstrong’s mush-mouthed verses do not mesh well at all with the song’s bouncy feel, resulting in a chorus that sounds more like a gang of Muppets than a couple of punk giants. Things go similarly off the rails in “Gentlemen Of The Road,” which basically sounds like an Armstrong solo track that Freeman just so happens to be on.
At their best, Devil’s Brigade falls nicely into place alongside other Hellcat psychos like Tiger Army and Nekromantix, capturing both bands’ nimble, sinister highlights without sounding like straight copies. Freeman has said that he plans on working on more Devil’s Brigade material and tours whenever he has time off from Rancid. Now that his project has been properly re-introduced, it’s now up to him to further embrace the things that make it work, while scaling back on its more awkward asides.