Released July 30, 2016
By Melanie Stangl
A melancholy, immersive, slightly distorted guitar riff, underscored by a heartbeat-esque bassline, opens up the first track of local alt-rock group Old Game’s new 9-song album, Flower Moon. Soon followed by a relentless, pounding kick drum, it’s a fitting introduction to this collection of moody grunge that never feels stale for a second. Their inventive, powerful, and gritty rock sound pulls off several balancing acts. It’s dark without veering into cartoonish exaggeration, intense without leaving you wanting a breather, and lyrically/instrumentally complex without being confusing or alienating. Not to mention the twin lead vocals/guitars of Brenda Leeds and Thom Hunter, which both get chances to shine on their own, yet complement each other pleasingly. Leeds’ voice brings to mind a grittier Blondie that handles growling and screaming as adeptly as higher, softer melodies. Hunter, meanwhile, recalls Jamie Hince of the Kills, with a little more gravel. They’re joined by drummer Erik Pitluga and bassist Greg Wojo, whose contributions provide the songs’ essential framework with unapologetic power and a pulse that manages to be, in equal turns, brooding and energetic. In that first track, Leeds asks, “Do you feel it? I know I feel it too.” Flower Moon ensures that the listener’s answer throughout is an unquestionable “yes.”
“New Guns” is a midtempo number that sets the tone for the album with heavy instrumentals and starkly honest lyrics. This track shows the band’s keen instinct for playing with repetition and song structure. There are distinguishable verses and choruses, but vocal interludes, extended refrains, and thoughtfully-placed instrumental breaks make the track flow while keeping it anything but formulaic. The recurrence of the intro riff and parallels between parts (such as “You know how to dig when you’re searching for gold” in the first verse and “You know how to pry when your door is closed” in the second) are anchors, ensuring cohesion without sacrificing creativity. Both Leeds’ voice and Hovanec’s bass shine here.
Next up is “Lady Loose,” the first single released from the album. For good reason, too: the fast, head-banging pace, shrewd use of both vocal parts, perfectly gritty guitars, and cathartic lyrics make this song a standout. The first verse features a call-and-response pattern between Leeds and Hunter before moving into clear harmonies (and then back again), for a back-and-forth of relentlessness and emphasis. The choruses repeat this structure, with the belligerent, fun-to-sing-along-with mantra, “I’m not letting you in/I’m not letting you in/Oh you can twist your tongue all you want, I’m not letting you in.” The pattern is briefly broken when the two sing an octave apart, further increasing the impact of the words: “You’ve got no disguise, and I’ve got your prize/I’m not letting you in.” The aggressive feel is increased throughout the track, with Leeds’ vocal part gradually moving closer to a scream. This track is fun, cathartic, and thoughtfully put-together.
The third track, “Refrigerator Magnets,” slows things down without losing intensity. Hunter takes the lead on the album’s second single to great effect, displaying his range with two vocal tracks singing simultaneously, an octave apart. The lyrics are particularly good here, depicting someone ambivalent about both a person in their life and their debauchery-filled lifestyle itself: “She was acting single, and I was drinking doubles/She found a case of beer, but I’ll find my own trouble.” The phrases “I’ve been a liar/my whole life” and “Sex and cigarettes and rock n’ roll” are repeated in Hunter’s purposely scratchy drawl throughout, reinforcing these themes. Other lyrical gems include, “And if you love with gasoline/Well I’ve been running on empty/But it’s enough to start a fire and burn everything,” and “When the phone never rings, you’ll know it’s me.” Low piano notes, a subtler bassline, and gentler guitars are all that accompany the words until two minutes in, when the drums kick in, the tempo picks up, and the guitar parts become heavier and grungier. It’s the perfectly-crafted soundtrack to indulgent emptiness (and empty indulgence.)
“Salt” extends the relative lull, but this isn’t a bad or boring thing. That “relative” is key: the track has its powerful moments, particularly towards the end, and the lyrics still pack emotional rawness, but the lilting, unhurried tempo provides as close to Old Game gets to a break—which at this point in the album is not unwelcome. Leeds picks up the dominant vocal part again, venturing into her more melodic and vulnerable side with lines such as “I’ll buy you a drink, just let me borrow/Your body tonight, let’s pretend,” “Hold my hand, don’t leave me behind,” and “Heal my wounds/Tell me I’m fine.” While the previous song seems to accept emotional unfulfillment, this track opens up about its difficulties—the isolating burden of strong feelings unreciprocated. This self-directed frustration and melancholy is epitomized musically in moments such as the unexpected fall-down to a minor chord at the end of the chorus. And the need for relief is expressed in Leeds’ repetition of “Let’s wash it away.” The wind-down around four minutes in fools you into thinking the song is over, but then builds back up again with a seriously impressive drum part from Pitluga and a repeated guitar pattern that’s gradually added to. Even in their version of a pause, Old Game packs an attentive, emotionally resonant punch.
The title track, “Flower Moon,” is far grungier than the pretty title might make it seem. The song largely has a resigned/depressed feel, exemplified by the repetitive bleak, bare-bones distorted guitar riff. Hunter takes the lead again here, with Leeds providing octave-higher harmonies that echo weakness and dissatisfaction rather than the strength they reinforce in “Lady Loose.” Religious allusions abound as well: “the high altitude won’t get you closer to your God,” and “It gets strange finding yourself so lost/Even stranger 360’s on your cross.” Acceptance of pain (“And I move away/to stare at my television/in a new place”) transforms into confrontation of it (“The patron saint of all your hate”), resignation into torment, by track’s end. After an abrupt stripping-down to just Hunter’s voice and a guitar, anguished scratchy screams drill through heavier instrumentals and don’t let up for over forty seconds. The band’s instincts for gradual builds and their skill at showing emotions, not spoon-feeding them, are both displayed well here.
“Dreamer” takes those feelings to more foreboding and energetic territory. The grittiness and passion of Leeds’ voice is on satisfying display when she growl-sings such lines as, “Take the arrow, point it straight/At this one you love to hate,” “Apple of your eye/Aim a little more to the right,” and “Mama says don’t play with guns/but we all just need some fun.” These offer a great contrast to the recurring higher, softer, anxious refrain of, “I am afraid, I am afraid of standing still, still, still.” The vocal patterns have parallels instrumentally. Sparse guitar and bass lines at the start build gradually into explosive full-band choruses, then come back down and do it again—with the drums appearing earlier the second and third times around, providing an overall increase in power as the song goes on. This track has an eerie, raw, almost otherworldly vibe, like a fairy tale gone wrong. (The execution, though, is just right.)
“Ah!Pathetic” embodies emotionally charged bitterness at a dishonest former lover, expressed in lines like, “Can’t believe all of those love songs, how could I ever feel that way/Just high on chemicals that came/from in- and outside of my brain,” and “You said at least a thousand times/You are loved, you are winning, and you are mine/and you fucking lied/oh, you fucking lied.” This is also reflected in the growling, occasionally desperate tone of Hunter’s voice, and the relentless midtempo heaviness of guitar, bass, and drums. Both the vocal melody and the guitar part go up in pitch after the second chorus, reflecting the still-significant intensity of these feelings—the song’s title might phonetically express where Hunter wants to be, but the way it’s spelled, and the aggressiveness of every aspect of this song, reveals that he’s not there yet. It’s a stark, gritty soundtrack to righteous romantic indignation.
“Presser,” a six-and-a-half minute track, trades in bitter screams for haunting, ethereal ones, and unrelenting instrumentals for those that vacillate between attack and retreat—all without sacrificing ferocity. Leeds is back on primary vocals, and if “Dreamer” depicted a corrupted fairy tale, this song is the anthem of that world’s villain. The power, skill, and versatility of her voice force you to believe such bone-chilling lyrics as: “No, you’re not safe in your dreams/I haunt incessantly/My favorite game is hide and seek/And you will meet me in your sleep/Snakes wrap around your feet/No one will hear your screams.” High melancholy “oooh’s” and unintelligible whispered phrases regularly appear in the background, completing the creepy atmosphere. The repeated phrases “’Cause the sea and me/know how to breathe/in harmony, in harmony” and “You cannot take me down/I’ll never drown” are emphasized by fierce drumming from Pitluga and powerful, menacing guitar parts. This is another highlight of the album—not despite, but because of its immersive darkness.
Flower Moon concludes with “Rock N Roll,” a slower tune that’s equal parts aching nostalgia and exhaustion. The band’s gift for words is again on prominent display here. “Oh, we’ve been on these tires too long/We’re burning them up ‘til they’re gone/Riding on only our wheels/The road that we’re on, it seems endless/You wish it were level and well-lit/But everything just keeps looking worse,” “You’re walking on broken legs/Your crutches are bottles and kegs,” and “The song that was on, it was perfect/Never again have you heard it/But you still catch yourself/humming along in your head,” are just a few of the standouts. The music expertly reflects this mood, as it does consistently throughout the album. It grows from a “She’s So Heavy”-esque fingerpicked riff and an appropriately-worn-out vocal part from Hunter to an onslaught of increasingly frantic guitar chords and shouted lyrics, before coming back down to end with sparse, resigned, octave-apart “Oh”’s from both vocalists. It might seem strange to end a rock n’ roll album with a track that depicts the downsides of rock n’ roll, but the song is a fitting conclusion to an album that doesn’t shy away from honest emotion or painful reflection.
This album is the dark, brooding, expertly-crafted rock record of your dreams (and maybe your nightmares.) You can download it here, and catch their next performance at RANT this weekend—they play the main stage at The Abbey on Butler Street on Saturday, starting at 8:50. They’re also opening for Stone Cold Fox at Cattivo, along with Orange Mammoth, on August 15th. Don’t miss the chance to grab a physical copy of the album and hear their remarkable musicianship for yourself.