Saturnalia – The Badger Herald
When members of two failed bands of even the smallest notoriety combine forces, all too often they’re labeled a “supergroup” and set up to meet impossible standards. This cycle seems to be repeating itself with the Gutter Twins, a collaboration between the frontmen of the grunge-era bands the Screaming Trees and the Afghan Whigs. While their contemporaries seemed to find instant success in the early ’90s, Mark Lanegan’s Screaming Trees and Greg Dulli’s Afghan Whigs never made it out of the starting gate and achieved only minimal mainstream success. When each band folded at the decade’s end, Lanegan and Dulli turned their attentions to other projects, eventually emerging as the Gutter Twins, a term tied to both men’s soiree with the seedier side of rock during their former bands’ existence.
A record four years in the making, the finished project of Lanegan and Dulli’s work together is the album Saturnalia. Proving that their name is not just a facade, the Gutter Twins’ Saturnalia is a gloomy trip to the darkest parts of the human psyche.
The album’s tone is set immediately with the brooding first track, “The Stations.” Fueled by Lanegan’s baritone, the track steps outside of the grunge framework their previous bands were known for with its well-placed use of a string section.
Saturnalia’s second track, “God’s Children,” gives listeners their first taste of Dulli fulfilling the dual role of songwriter and lead vocalist. While the song’s tempo picks up some from the first track, it remains rooted toward the slower end of the spectrum, keeping the album’s gloomy subconscious alive.
Track No. 3, “All Misery/Flowers,” is the first of a handful of appearances by former A Perfect Circle and current Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen. While the song succeeds musically, it is hindered by poor lyrics such as, “Little girls might twitch at the way I itch/ But when I burn it’s a son of a bitch.”
Sounding almost operatic, the track “Idle Hands” most resembles the grunge sound the Gutter Twins’ frontmen are known for. Immediately following it, though, is Saturnalia’s finest moment, the bass-driven tune “Circle The Fringes.” Starting off slow and quiet, “Circle The Fringes” is a sonic punch to the head after it breaks the two-minute mark.
From there, Saturnalia moves along at a typical pace. “Seven Stories Underground” finds Lanegan using his voice to paint a musical landscape brought to life with the song’s subdued backing music. Similar to Lanegan’s vocal work on the Queens of the Stone Age song “Hangin’ Tree,” “Seven Stories Underground” is a perfect example of the less-is-more aesthetic.
Stepping the most outside their musical norms, the Gutter Twins employ grunge-era hero Natasha Shneider and her synthesizer’s beats on Saturnalia’s eleventh tune, “Each To Each.” While by no means a bad song, “Each To Each” doesn’t exactly ebb with the rest of the album’s tracks and would’ve sounded better as a contribution to the next Handsome Boy Modeling School record.
Despite the fact that the Gutter Twins’ Saturnalia was recorded in two different locations with dozens of different studio musicians, it never loses its rainy-day music feel. From beginning to end, the latest outing by grunge alums Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli is as solid a record as one can expect from people who have been in the music business for close to two decades. If the Gutter Twins must be labeled as a “supergroup,” then they are certainly on par with, if not better than, fellow ’90s supergroups Audioslave, Velvet Revolver and Army of Anyone. In the end, the Gutter Twins prove that while it is unrealistic to expect a masterpiece from the latest incarnation of a “supergroup,” it does not mean they cannot produce an exceptional debut album like Saturnalia.