Is it just me, or has heavy psych been coming back down to Earth recently? Not that I’m necessarily complaining, but it does seem a bit like these days I’m hearing fewer interstellar shamans, and more drunk-by-early-afternoon biker gangs. Less 2001: A Space Odyssey, more The Wild Angels. Which isn’t all that surprising when you consider the origins of a band like Hawkwind, or the simultaneity of motorcycle culture and drug culture in the late 60s and early 70s. And even if the whole scene had diverged for a bit, enough to distinguish between deserts of Mars from those of southern California, following a recent stream of radness from labels like Tee Pee and Riding Easy it seems that such rugged, earthly ragamuffins as Netherlands natives Death Alley are as much at home in the psych scene as Mork, Dr. McCoy, and Alf ever were.
Anyway, those very same ragamuffins in Death Alley have recently released unto the world (via Tee Pee Records) their full-length debut, Black Magic Boogieland. Briefly put, it’s a relatively concise and relatively relentless barrage of Motorheadian rollick and Danavaian guitar duels, shrouded by a sheen of macabre and mystique. Supplement such worthy influences with wonderfully immediate production, vocals that more closely approximate a punk sneer than a demonic growl, the occasional spaceship-noise homage, and a light haze of convincing-if-campy spookiness, and you have the DEATH ALLEY SOUND.
The album opens with “Over Under”, which shifts nicely from a driving, very much in-your-face rollick to a looser, groovier swagger for the choruses. And not only does this song show how comfortable Death Alley is playing either feel, but it’s got some great guitar solos, harmonized leads, and even a spacey, oozin ah’s interlude for atmosphere’s sake. In short, as thorough a summary as any of exactly what kinds of things these guys like to do, and as such a well-informed choice as to how to kick things off.
From that we get right into the title track, “Black Magic Boogieland”, which is my favorite number on the album. It’s a great song, obviously, but what I really like about it is the welcome-to-whatever-land vibe it gives, in the same vein as certain heraldic selections from The Wizard of Oz or A Nightmare Before Christmas. As in, as soon as you roll up to Oz, or Halloweentown, or wherever, you are met with a welcoming party that instantly launches into song and dance to let you know exactly where you are, exactly what you might expect to find there, and exactly why it’s the most wonderful place in the world. If there is such a place as the Black Magic Boogieland (and this album does much to convince us that perhaps there really, truly is), then it’s clear that Death Alley would never be so negligent as to let you enter before conveying, through vivid soundscapes and impressionistic lyrics, what a treat you’re in for.
Other parts of the album serve as a charming inventory of the band’s influences. “The Fever” shows them switching from the recklessness of Motorhead to the nimbleness of Blue Oyster Cult (can someone please tell me how to type umlauts?) without batting an eye. “Golden Fields of Love” is straight out of the mid-70s Sabbath playbook, with all the mid-to-down-tempo groove and empowering, path of the righteous lyrics of Sab cuts like “Under the Sun” and “Looking for Today”. And “Dead Man’s Bones”? Well, I’m damned if that song’s not a dead ringer for “Hit the Lights”. And while I always feel a tinge of guilt reducing a band to an obvious list of influences, Death Alley has no reason to take it the wrong way, because the above examples – and the rest of the album as a whole – are littered all over with examples of how this band is able to set themselves apart with more-complex-than-you-might-expect songcraft, tonalities, and dynamics. Not to mention chops that are at every turn up to the challenge.
“Supernatural Predator”, clocking in at over 12 minutes, brings things to an epic close, summarizing Death Alley’s whole ethos by taking its damn time, where “Over Under” did the same through one-two-punch brevity. Either way, it’s a summary worth hearing. Death Alley may be standing on a humble and straightforward platform, but when it comes to debut albums, I’d rarely ask for more. I mean, look at Zeppelin I. “Black Magic Boogieland” is a great example of the absolute right way to take a tried and true template, sprinkle it all over with ingenuity, and come forth with a record that speaks for itself.
Buy the sucker on CD or clear orange vinyl here,