I know what you’re probably thinking because I’ve already been there myself. I love The Damned to pieces, but don’t necessarily want to hear anything new by them. If you’re a classics-only type of punk rocker, well then, I dig, man. The risk of going total Henry Rollins apeshit when this latest cookie from the UK punk idols gets chucked on the turntable could be the tipping point for some of you. A better idea would be to throw your worn-out original pressing of Damned Damned Damned on and blast the skronk out of your cruddy shithole with “Fan Club” and “New Rose” on repeat until your speaker cabinets belch and bleed fuzz bombs and your neighbors are pissed to high buggery and beating on your walls.
As tempting as it may be to let loose and rend this saucer a new one, don’t reach for the sledgehammer just yet my fellow punk fiends. Honestly, this is not a bad album. It could’ve been much, much worse. But it’s not. True, it won’t be like hearing the piss ’n’ vinegar frenzy that is “Neat Neat Neat” or the brooding psych-punk stammer of “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today” for the first time. But it is The Damned we’re talking about, and not, say, some other influential pillar that emerged from the filth and fury of the ‘77 movement who’s no longer with us.
This album definitely won’t change your life, much like the group’s 1977 self-titled masterpiece probably did, but who would’ve thought that 40-plus years after they formed, we would still be using “The Damned” and “new record” in the same sentence? While it doesn’t come with the customary sticker that promises to be their smartest effort since their 1979 classic, Machine Gun Etiquette, it’s actually a somewhat surprising and memorable offering from the lads. Most bands in their position at this point would’ve probably continued to plod the world over with one greatest hits tour after the next, and then when that got old, maybe they would regroup in the studio and sling out an all-acoustic record of fan favorites, or better yet, a cover’s record. Not Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible.
The allure of The Damned in 2018 is that they’re not trying to reinvent the wheel or rehash days gone by with Evil Spirits (Search and Destroy/Spinefarm Records), which is their first long-player in 10 years. One thing that’s quite nifty is how surprisingly catchy some of these tunes are. Songs such as album opener “Standing on the Edge of Tomorrow” and “The Daily Liar” grind along with a garage-rock stomp and an all-too-familiar goth-punk vibe that serves as a reminder that The Damned never really went anywhere in the first place, they just had other business matters to attend to for the last decade.
Yet another added bonus with Evil Spirits may be the group’s recruiting of famed record producer Tony Visconti, who spent the better part of the 1970s in the recording studio with the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, T. Rex, and Thin Lizzy. Strange as it may seem, it’s not too far out upon second thought, when you consider The Damned chose power-pop smith Nick Lowe and Nick Mason from Pink Floyd notoriety to anchor the soundboards for their first two albums respectively. With Visconti on board, it turns into a pretty loose affair that doesn’t sound labored or botched in any sense. Rather, he captures the band with a somewhat raw sentimentality that ensures upbeat numbers don’t dip too far into red territory.
Those of you who hold The Damned’s mid-80s repertoire, specifically 1985’s Phantasmagoria, near and dear to your hearts will be in good company with Evil Spirits. This is not to suggest that Vanian or Sensible have completely mellowed in the elder stages of their career (quite the opposite) nor is there any indication that the former will smear a giant blonde, skunky stripe on the side of his mane again (can’t vouch for that however). Much like Phantasmagoria, the production quality is slick this time around, as Vanian and company rub a bit of pop sheen on bustling numbers like “The Devil In Disguise” and “Procrastination,” while things get all-out jammy and psychedelic during the title track.
On “Shadow Evocation,” Vanian’s ghoulish vox evokes a Scott Walker-in-a-funhouse affectation, while organ maestro Monty Oxymoron conjures up a dank soundtrack of spooky, ethereal psychedelia that recalls throwbacks of ‘50s horror flicks set in boneyards and laboratories. Once the chorus kicks into high gear, the rhythm section of bassist Paul Gray (who last played with the group in 1983) and drummer Pinch chisels away with a fervor that doesn’t disappoint. The same goes for the follow-up track, “Sonar Deceit,” which bops and bounces in a quasi–spaghetti western pulse of the Cap’s echoey guitar spindles and blaring trumpets.
Anarcho-punk group Crass wrote a song called “Punk Is Dead,” which in turn became a rallying cry scrawled everywhere in bathroom stalls, on basement walls, in journal entries, on people’s skin and the like. Now, 40 years on and The Damned are the last ones standing and not having any of it.