When Wolfmother released their first EP in fall of 2004, it was a perfect snapshot of an era the Australian trio had missed by a good 30 or so years. Across just four songs, the EP took the sounds of ’70s rock gods like Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin and made them new again, fresh and raw and irresistible. It was the next logical step from the garage rock revival that had strutted its way to the forefront of popular rock in the early 2000s, kicking out the Silvertone amps and dime store jangling guitars for massive Marshall stacks and searing, fuzz-laden solos, just as their forebears had done decades earlier.
But by the time they released their debut full-length two years later, the wave had already begun to crest. The self-titled album was fabulous, full of monolithic riffs and yowling Robert Plant vocals, but signs of succumbing to excess in the production booth were already beginning to show. There is nothing wrong with re-recording old songs for a new, more complete record, but the changes made to those first four songs, originally so full of unbridled energy and raw beauty, left them feeling limp, weak, and over-slick. The magic of that brilliant first EP was gone, and while the band had plenty of great new tracks to complete the record, it was a harbinger for what was to come.
And what was to come was, simply, a mess. Personnel changes with nearly every record left guitarist and vocalist Andrew Stockdale the sole creative engine of the band. Without the sounding board of co-founders Myles Heskett and Chris Ross, musicians who helped shape the sound of those first records, each album has fallen further and further off the wagon.
Which leads us to this year’s Victorious. The band’s fourth proper record (though at this point, there’s no reason not to include the aborted Wolfmother record that Stockdale released under his own name in 2013), Victorious was billed as a return to form for the band as they celebrate the 10th anniversary of their acclaimed first LP’s release. The riffs are certainly bigger and ballsier than those on the past few records, but Stockdale seems to have lost his personal line to the gods of the ’70s and is left settling for the lesser players.
The album kicks off on “Love That You Give” with a driving stoner riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Brant Bjork-era Fu Manchu record, but it promises much more than the rest of the record can consistently deliver upon. There are some solid tracks near the end, but before we get to the fuzzedout “Gypsy Caravan” midway through side B, there’s a whole lot of dreck to slough through.
The promise on that very first EP is dashed so immediately, and more than a few of these tracks are just plain bad. The worst offenders have to be the moments when Stockdale pulls off the gas completely, like “Pretty Peggy”. Meant to come off as an introspective but footstomping ballad a la “Going to California” (it even has the twinkling mandolin), it sounds more like “Hey There Delilah”. Worse yet is “Best of a Bad Situation”, which can only be described as Bon Jovi-esque, with its saccharine chorus, hand-claps, and lazy chord progression.
That’s ultimately the most painful aspect of the past 10 years of Wolfmother: the underlying feeling of lethargy. The riffs on songs like “Victorious” and “Simple Life”, for example, are not necessarily bad, but they’re not delivered with any sense of urgency. “Simple Life” is arguably this album’s “Apple Tree”, but it lacks that wild energy that propelled the earlier song, shuddering and shaking and threatening to fall apart at the seams. That was the thrill of Wolfmother in 2004. Hell, that’s the thrill of all good rock music: that sense of volatility, of inevitable and uncontrollable force. But Victorious only finds that momentum rarely.
One of the exceptions is the aforementioned “Gypsy Caravan”, which touches on vibes familiar to fans of Southern California desert rockers like Fu Manchu and Kyuss, though Stockdale’s questionable vocal post-production edges it toward the ridiculous. The echoes, man — why always with the echoes?
“Happy Face” continues this bottom-heavy stoner jam, with some nice droning harmonies that spin into the world of psychedelia, assisted by some cosmic keyboarding. And though the final track, “Eye of the Beholder”, is forgettable filler, it doesn’t ruin the effect that the tail end of the record has been setting up. Of note as well is “City Lights”, possibly the most energetic song on the album, complete with twisting dual guitar solos and catchy melody. It still comes off a little too controlled in its delivery, but turned up loud enough, it would make a good soundtrack to a night-time drive through the Hollywood Hills.
Stockdale and his band have more to offer, but he needs a cleansing. He needs to be set loose in the desert with a 4-track and a single Russian-built Big Muff. That’s it. Return to the loam, start again. Maybe even call up Heskett and Ross. That’s the return that would make Wolfmother truly victorious.
Essential Tracks: “Gypsy Caravan”, “City Lights”, and “Happy Face”