Drunksouls - Just Before Chaos
Release Date: January 1, 2014
Record Label: Independent
By now, I’d say that my general distaste for reggae is pretty well documented, which is why I wasn’t too excited when a new record from a French band called Drunksouls ended up in my inbox a few weeks ago. The album, called Just Before Chaos, was described as “Reggae infused pop rock,” and while the RIYL list certainly inspired a bit more confidence than the stylistic tag (with names like Michael Jackson, Phoenix, and Red Hot Chili Peppers sitting alongside more expected influences like Damian Marley), I was still skeptical when I first pushed play on this particular record.
Luckily, my skepticism was at least mostly unfounded. While there are certainly elements of reggae in these songs, like in the horn-blasted rhythm of single “Human Race,” or in the carefree, beach-ready feel of “J'ai fait un rêve” (one of four French language tracks on the record), Just Before Chaos often finds more of its basis in classic rock guitar riffing and infectious indie pop sounds than in tired reggae grooves. Case in point is the album’s lead-off track, the aptly titled "Chaos," which starts off as a breathless Michael Jackson imitation and lifts into orbit with an incendiary guitar solo halfway through. Guitarist Julien Mur remains the album’s biggest strength throughout the record, with his electrical style landing somewhere between the flash-bang technicality of John Mayer, the sweeping grandeur of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, and the genre-hopping finesse of ex-RHCP veteran, John Frusciante.
Mur isn’t the only reason that Drunksouls’ sound works, however. The band’s frontman – who for some reason calls himself DJaM – has a thick French accent that makes his English songs sound more dramatic (see “Dear Lady,” with its Jethro Tull-style instrumentation) and his French songs sound smooth and romantic (“J'ai fait un rêve,” which channels the songs from Vampire Weekend’s stellar 2012 LP, Modern Vampires of the City, or “Comme Louise et Thelma,” which might as well be a classical French art song). The rhythm section, meanwhile – comprised of bassist Adren Coulomb and drummer Julien Heurtel – shines especially on “Pain of Life.” Coulomb flits like Flea, while Heurtel plays a thunderous drum solo, Mur’s funky guitar showering the whole thing in a throwback Clash-esque atmosphere.
That’s not to say that Just Before Chaos is faultless, though. For instance, the consistent shifting between English and French results in an album that really never has a chance of being cohesive. To make matters worse, the best and most distinctive songs on the album are the first two, after which the record slowly begins to stumble into the pitfalls that I feared it would before I first pressed play. The mid-album trio of “No More Fighting,” “The Fall,” and “Drifter Song” collectively represents the biggest misstep, with all three tunes succumbing to the same generic and overused reggae tropes that so many bands of this ilk fail to transcend. The first and last of those three songs are the album’s two absolute failures, both uninspired Marley tributes that go nowhere and offer little reason to keep listening. “The Fall,” on the other hand, squanders a cool guitar/organ effect on a song that is disappointingly stagnant, but which nonetheless shows shades of the band's talents.
The last few tracks on Just Before Chaos offer more of a mixed bag. The rap-rock frat jam that is “Revolution” breaks the album’s increasingly mundane cycle, using unexpected nods to the Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, and early Red Hot Chili Peppers to formulate a tune that shakes the album awake. It’s not great as a standalone, but coming after the record’s doldrum sections, it offers some nice movement in another direction. Minutes later, penultimate number “Dernière cigarette” takes things back to the guitar-led style of the album’s earlier tracks, a welcome return-to-form for the band – even if the rest of the song isn’t terribly memorable.
Then again, maybe guitar-heavy alternative rock isn’t the form Drunksouls were actually looking to take here. Since they class themselves as “Reggae infused pop rock,” it’s likely that the band views the three-song low-point I cited in the middle of Just Before Chaos as their centralized wheelhouse. But if that’s the case, it’s fairly clear that they’ve made a miscalculation. You don’t employ a guitarist as skilled as Julien Mur only to have him play the two or three repetitious chords and rhythms associated with reggae music. No, this is a guy you have to cut loose and let fly on solos and riffs aplenty. When that happens, as on quality tracks like “Chaos” and “Human Race,” Just Before Chaos soars. When it doesn’t happen, as on most of the album’s second half, Drunksouls more or less fall flat. The lesson? Write more songs like those first two.