The thickset blues-rock of Havilah, the fifth studio album from the Drones, makes for opaque and impenetrable listening. Stodgy layers of guitar prevail throughout, and the production is so dense that the end product feels like an hour-long huff on a rusty exhaust pipe. Singer Gareth Liddiard only adds to the bottomless well of oppression, spending most of the album howling like early-’90s grunge angst never went out of fashion. Aside from a few witty lyrics, this is one of the least lighthearted records you’re likely to hear all year.
Havilah’s opening two tracks, “Nail it Down” and “The Minotaur,” set the tone. Condensed guitar riffs grind like power tools, with Liddiard spitting lyrical bile over the top. The Drones are a band out of time, an old fashioned four-piece unit whose dogged rigidity rarely allows then to deviate from the basic tenets of rock ‘n’ roll. They play loud, with passion and without a care for any technological advances that may have infected the music scene in the last 40 years.
Some of these are admirable qualities, of course, but they often stray too close to cliché to actually make Havilah something that stands out from the lumpen mire of blues-infused rock acts. They’re not capable of practicing the same giddy experimentation of upcoming rock bands like Women or Abe Vigoda. Nor are they able to wallow in the same gloriously gloomy lows as, say, Come’s Eleven: Eleven or Neil Young’s On the Beach. Instead, the Drones specialize in the kind of mid level depress-o-rock that the Smashing Pumpkins have been peddling on-and-off for the best part of two decades.
There’s a lack of lyrical and sonic invention in the Drones’ sound, and with the run time of Havilah pushing the hour mark, the combination of humdrum guitar riffs and Liddiard’s trite howl becomes grating. They occasionally ease the mood on quieter numbers such as “The Drifting Housewife” and “Cold and Sober,” but even these songs feel like a barely realized mesh of ideas thieved from Van Morrison and Crazy Horse.
Havilah meanders to a close with “Your Acting’s Like the End of the World,” a relatively jaunty affair that again makes the Drones influences far too transparent. Liddiard’s words are too often uninspired, and seemingly torn from a notebook full of juvenilia that should have been stuffed in the back of a firmly locked closet. On “Oh My” he even wraps his whiny vocals around the line “people are a waste of food,” and that kind of sub-par teen angst really rankles as Havilah unfolds at a tortuously slow pace.