The Band’s Robbie Robertson once said, “Music should never be harmless.” But since rock ’n’ roll became less taboo and, eventually, such a mainstream phenomenon that it could hardly ever be considered harmful, the danger seeped out of the genre. Increasingly, rock’s edginess became more of a posture than an actual characteristic. The bands are groomed to serve some label rep’s outdated vision of rebellion, while the actual music is bland and inoffensive. This is an old gripe, sure, but it still exists far more predominantly than seems to make sense.
Thankfully, The Men’s Devil Music delivers on the evil bent of its title. The Brooklyn band’s last two records, New Moon and Tomorrow’s Hits, embraced classic and heartland rock, but Devil Music returns to the brutalizing din of its debut. The record kicks off with a staggering triple punch of psych-punk built on chugging, nonstop rhythm guitar split up by lead licks and frenetic solos. Those three tunes—“Dreamer,” “Crime,” and “Ridin’ On”—are nearly indistinguishable due to similar structure and tempo, but the hurricane of noise they create is more hypnotic than frustrating. But then the hardcore-leaning “Lion’s Den” somehow steers everything to even more stupefying heights, with glitchy pummeling, chaotic saxophone, and pained yelling.
Those four songs—homogeneous as they sometimes are—lay the groundwork for Devil Music’s greatest quality: an unending, relentless tailspin into dread, anxiety, and creeping fear. Even the title track—a smoky, sombre acoustic instrumental—feels ominous, less a break from the noise that surrounds it and more of a clarifying “Yes, these songs should make you uneasy.” It only confirms the danger of the rest of the album. “Patterns” and “Violate” turn things toward psych instead of punk, with the latter delivering a consuming swamp-monster riff between breakneck freak-outs. “Hit The Ground” once again smacks you around with explosions of sax over a crash of cymbals and jagged overdrive.
Devil Music was recorded in less than three days at the band’s practice space, with a lyrical approach that involved making room for ad-libbing inside “lyrical skeletons,” a process that only adds to the strange tension of the record. It’s difficult to hear most of the words, but “Gun” seems especially touched by that method. Throughout the song, lyrics are slurred, broken, mumbled, screamed, and cut off, all adding to the threatening mood that permeates the album.
“Fire” ends Devil Music with its most hellish moment, on a Black Sabbath-esque riff that feels like blunt force trauma and an admission—“I gave into my desire”—just before crashing into screams of “Jesus Christ!” over waves of distortion. The album’s liner notes quote Jerry Lee Lewis: “How can it be the Devil’s music? Satan didn’t give me the talent. God gave me the talent, and I’ve always told people that.” Devil Music sounds like The Men took that talent, gave into their most primal, terrifying desires, and built a raucous, bruising—and never harmless—noise out of it.