Park the Van Records

Drugs’ new album has a rather interesting back story, in that Joel Jasper and J.B. Benzinski started recording it over three years ago, and they’ve been sitting on the completed record for over a year now.  They were formerly members of a different, unnamed band, and it appears that this was meant for another project.  But then their buddy Zach Mabry, the drummer, quit, and so they took the next year to finish it off, perfect it, etc.  And they turned to two more good friends, Vince Guitierrez and Alan Connor to help them finish it.  And then they found themselves a label, New Orleans’ Park the Van Records, and here we are.  The decided on the band name for the simple fact of DRUGS and rock’n’roll, and the fact that it somehow had not been used by anyone else.

The fact that Jasper and Benzinski were able to quarantine together during this Covid clusterfuck in Long Beach, CA, and they had access to a home studio certainly helped, and this allowed them to explore new sounds and new ideas as they finished off the album.

The presser describes this album as being ‘avant-garde,’ and there are certainly flourishes of that throughout, though it seems that this adjective comes more from the process which led to the finished process, as Jasper reports that the album is

an unruly and jagged musical terrain that casts aside traditional linear songwriting form in favor of a more abstract stream of consciousness style. Anger, uncertainty, reconciliation, wonder, anxiety are all wrapped up together.

But underneath that, Drugs are an indie rock band.  And that is no sleight of hand, it is a tribute to their ability to create really catchy, bouncy, and yet, jagged music that explores themes of mental health and stability.  I hear all kinds of echoes across the decades of punk/alternative/indie rock here, even all the way back to the Beach Boys, but also everything from fIREHOSE to artsier bands like the Belgian 90s band, Deus.

Episodic kicks off with ‘Evidential,’ which is built up around a driving bass line and a frenetic drum beat, and some off-kilter breaks of synth and guitar.  And then that feeds directly into ‘Joyride,’ which begins with guitars over a similar driving beat and frantic drums.  Jasper’s voice is slightly high-pitched and he writes a good, catchy chorus.  But for me, this song is driven by those drums and bass, which allow the guitars and the synth to dance over top, almost skittering.

‘Mirage’ begins with a 70s softrock-esque flanger guitar riff, and Jasper’s high pitched vocals, and an electronic piano, and as much as I hated this music when I was a kid, I find myself returning to this track over and over, there is something incredibly catchy and appealing about it.  It could be the bridge, which sees everything sped up, it could also be the drums.

Drugs are a rarity in modern rock, they are very much a drum-driven band.  Both Mabry, who laid down the original tracks, and Connor, are top-notch drummers, with jazz-based influences into their use of the high-hat and snare, in the vein of the Smashing Pumpkins’ secret weapon, Jimmy Chamberlin.  If you think about how Billy Corgan, in the heyday of the band, wrote songs that allowed for Chamberlin’s drums to carry the song, underneath all those guitars, and the space Chamberlin found underneath and between the howling guitars and D’Arcy Wretzky’s (well, as it turned out, Corgan’s) bass, you get an idea of the space carved out by Mabry and Connor here.  Drummers rarely get the credit they deserve, as they’re almost forgotten if their names aren’t Bonham or Moon, or Chamberlin. But Drugs’ drummers deserve a lot of credit.

I’m also really big on ‘Paralyzed,’ which has a steady beat and a stuttering bass line, over which some post-punk guitar skitters.  Jasper’s voice is perfectly suited to a track like this, as there is something skittish about his vocals, I can’t quite put my finger on it.  But the chord progression of ‘Paralyzed’ and the breakdown into a more swooning bit, is really appealing.

‘Try Me’ is the first single off the album, and I doubt you would, Dear Reader, be surprised to learn that this is the most straight-forward track on the album.  The formula is, by now, familiar for Drugs: driving bass and skittish drums, but here they are joined by shiny guitars and vocals.

Episodic is a damn fine début album, full of colour and charged with a nervous rhythm.  I really look forward to seeing where Drugs go from here.