Saturday Oct 21st, 2017
The first thing usually noted about Dead Heavens is the hardcore, punk and post-hardcore provenance of its members, from its revered frontman and guitarist Walter Schreifels (Gorilla Biscuits, Youth of Today, Rival Schools, Vanishing Life, Quicksand) to guitarist Paul Kostabi (Youth Gone Mad, White Zombie, Psychotica), bassist Nathan Aguilar (of Cults), and drummer Drew Thomas (Youth of Today, Bold, Into Another).
The next thing noticed is how fully and freely Dead Heavens stands apart from those earlier projects. Whatever Witch You Are, their first full-length, plays effortlessly as a new-classic blues rock album— a new-millennium Fresh Cream or Let it Bleed— only with sharp-angular sounds, noticeably psyche inflections, and melodies that seem wrought out of rebar: strong, pared down, and purposeful at every point. If anything, their musical origins have permitted Dead Heavens to approach blues and psyche rock unnostalgically, arriving at an audibly honest sound, stripped of any of the tassels or affectation. The drums hit heavy. The guitars hit heavy. Yet hovering above them both is always Schreifels’ sandier vocals, urging us on through life’s endless freakishness and frustrations.
“Many of these songs are love songs,” Schreifels explains, “Basic Cable is about love but a modern love that’s lost its way— when couples are stuck at home, binge-watching or glued to their phones, absently doing the dishes, unsatisfied until they finally realize that what they really need is to just go outside. This song is for when they finally get out there.” The pent-energy of this opening single explodes and never lets up, fueling quasi-Krautrock stretches in Goldtooth or Bad Luck Child, coasters like Silver Sea or Experience, or the pounding rock of Adderall Highway and Away from the Speed.
Following a burst of earlier singles like History in my Hands and Feel Low, this album is made for One Big Listen, and its lone rest stop, The Moon Will Listen (But Not the Sun), begins reflectively but shifts into full rollick by its second half. Dead Heavens first coalesced during a solo tour for Schreifels, in 2013, with Thomas and Aguilar as backing band. Swapping and trading music for road listening— Cream, My Bloody Valentine, White Fence— together the three distilled the musical mood that would soon characterize Dead Heavens. Upon returning to New York, Aguilar reacquainted Thomas and Schreifels with musician, painter, and sound engineer Paul Kostabi, who felicitously still owned the reel-to-reel on which Schreifels had recorded Gorilla Biscuits’ Start Today in 1989, and— in another claim to fame— had coined the title of Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion.
Their sympathies obvious, then, they leapt into recording at Kostabi’s Thunderdome Studios, and welcomed on Kostabi as a second lead guitar. A shotgun home studio set in the marshes of Piermont, New York, Thunderdome also guarded a trove of 70’s recording reels from Black Sabbath, The James Gang, and Jimi Hendrix— reels that played between takes and liberally infused the cauldron with an inspiringly darker magic. But as the title tells you, Whatever Witch You Are enjoins us to radically accept this darker magic, “in the sense of accepting a strong, strange, powerful woman who freaks out people precisely for all her powers,” Schreifels says, “and not just in love, but acceptance in a modern world that can often isolate us, and make us feel like freaks. For the full 36 minutes of this record, we want people to be able to embrace this freakishness.” Even when our world’s havoc-tossed, and our heavens dead, the lifers out there will always shrug it off and ready themselves for the strange new era.