Saturnalia – San Francisco Bay Times
By Don Baird
The brilliant duo of Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli
I’ve had access to downloading much more music from the Internet lately, and there have been a few new releases by bands of interest. One that was garnering a great deal of attention when I was in London with a couple very well received live U.K. debut dates was The Gutter Twins, a long-time-coming collaboration between Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees, Queens of The Stoneage) and Greg Dulli (Afghan Wigs, The Twilight Singers). Their first record together is entitled Saturnalia, and it marks the 20-year anniversary and return to the Sub-pop label for both artists whose first bands debuted there.
I mention this mainly because I’ve always felt like The Screaming Trees were a completely under-recognized part of the whole sub-pop northwest music scene. They released a score of very strong psychedelic wall-of-sound miasmic stoner rock LPs that more than properly showcased the developing vocal prowess of Lanegan as he slid naturally into his world-weary smoke and whiskey, bruised and soulful style. He arguably has one of rock and rolls’ most beautifully mournful and hard living damaged voices – steady, smooth and going down. He’s sexy and brooding and dark. I don’t know as much about Greg Dulli’s career and music, but it seems he traveled a similar path from a hard rocking beginning to a more vocal specific focus and a concentration on soul influences. I know his voice finds the registers on the higher end of the scale. Saturnalia, the album title, is the name of an ancient Roman celebration or festival marked by tomfoolery and reversal of social roles, in which slaves and masters ostensibly switched places.
It seems this pairing up has had the indie kids supergroup excited for quite some time, and it has been said that Lanegan’s apparent battles with substance abuse have been conquered and he came to the aid of Dulli for guidance out of a similar situation. I’ll try not to hold that against them and re-iterate that this might only be a rumor. I often dislike the effect an artist’s road to recovery can have on their music, but it’s different for everyone, I guess.
On first listening I found that perhaps Dulli’s most apparent influence as a collaborator are the lush instrumentations and complex arrangements, often using strings and multiple layers of vocals, creating moody but precise and tightly arranged compositions, each song kind of standing on its own and varying in style in a mini-epic way. Yhe songs are high on drama and deep into some pretty desolate emotional wastelands. The disc’s opening cut, “The Stations,” is a spooky dirge about crucifixion or Armageddon or the rapture, and it features the line, “There but for the grace of God go I,” which I’ve always loved. If this is the beginning of a journey, it’s starting out at a pretty loaded foreboding point.
The second song is “All God’s Children,” and I start to see this is a spiritual journey we’re on, the intro sounding a bit like Led Zeppelins’ “In My Time of Dying.” But it unfolds into a gentle lilting song that grows in intensity and sounds lush with backing vocals, very produced. I’m wondering if this is a Christian record as opposed to a rehab record. “All Misery Flowers” then comes sparsely pounding in with a tale of lengthy torturous love. Lanegan’s voice rasps low and steady in that perfect way that makes him so great, and the music builds to a gradual swelling tension with eerie whale-like sounds that remind me of that Pink Floyd song “Echoes.”
After an underwhelming cut called “The Body,” yet another obvious religious reference for a pretty dull romantic sounding song, the disc kicks in to its strongest stretch of songs. “Idle Hands” opens with a bombastic choral arrangement lifted from some biblical epic soundtrack, and Arabian strings wrap around Mark Lanegan’s best vocal so far. He just has a magnificent voice that has matured and strikes an unwavering new level of emotion and richness. “Circle The Fringes” continues on with a wash of crying violins, then a pleasant waltz-like bass that starts feeling haunted and creepy. Then Lanegan sings, “It’s all right to take me down/Between the hook and the line I took/ It’s all right to drag the lake/ And find the things you love.” Now that’s some wicked songwriting, and the rest of the lyrics are chilling and blunt and have a sense of darkness and diminishing faith and hope. It’s a plunge into a very abysmal and conflicted and scary journey and one you most certainly weren’t expecting to be anything like a fun loving, feel good record of the year based on the works of these two troubled and talented troubadours.
I must admit that after a few songs I started to be bothered by the fact that this record was so entirely filled with biblical references and redemption and the quest for spiritual guidance, and that whole good versus evil thing. It was sort of like when Dylan went Christian or something. It was kind of the last thing I expected from a record made by these two rock and roll outlaws, a story replete with angelic visions and meetings with Gabriel and cries for redemption at Heaven’s gate.
But ultimately the thing that comes through in each of these songs is a completely enveloping emotional engagement. You hear these songs for what they are, and Lanegan and Dulli deliver them with such a masterful and concise collaborative effort that they never fail to connect with the desired point, the gut or heart of the dread, longing, confusion, pain and release of this apparent story. It feels more like a bonafide rock opera than I anticipated, with character development and a definite cinematic quality. Especially on the cut “Bete Noire,” Lanegan sounds like he’s preaching a sermon to lost disciples about Icarus and self destruction and an organ accompaniment gives a ghostly gospel feel while his vocal is smooth and alluring, very sexy, like the hell he warns about is someplace you would follow him down to when your “wings of sin like Icarus will fall.” A voyage of the damned and his voice could lull anyone there, like the serpent in Eden.
By the final cut, “Front Street,” the epic feeling of Saturnalia comes full circle when a couple of simple touches bring to mind one of rock and roll’s most famous rock operas, The Wall by Pink Floyd. At the song’s intro you hear birds chirping, and then they actually drop the phrase “comfortably numb” into one of the most lyrically powerful verses in the entire collection of songs. These are pretty brazen references, and this isn’t the first time Pink Floyd came to mind while listening to Saturnalia. In a sense there are quite a few similarities between the two works, but Saturnalia almost sticks to more traditional religious and mythological themes in spinning a tale of self-discovery, redemption and release. Even though the themes are familiar, it’s definitely a trip worth taking.