Saturnalia – Playback
Playback Magazine by Bob Gendron
Music: 4.5/5 Sound: 4/5 “Must Hear”
Rumored for more than five years and hinted at via a succession of collaborations, the prospect of the Gutter Twins – a partnership between inimitable vocalists Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli – has until now existed as more of a tantalizing fantasy than a formal entity. Not that the pair hasn’t given reasons to believe.
Both artists have histories of helping a brother out. Dulli assisted on Lanegan’s Bubblegum album and sat behind the piano for a subsequent tour; Lanegan cut several tracks with Dulli’s Twilight Singers and has often joined the band onstage. Aside from a one-off Gutter Twins gig, these moments were the closest anyone came to experiencing what the two-headed beast might resemble if it ever became reality. In retrospect, it seems the frontmen understood the value of an old showbiz rule: give audiences a taste by stoking desires and teasing curiosities, but make them wait. What a concept.
A triumph of great art over anticipation and expectation, Saturnalia, named after an ancient Roman festival at which the social order of slaves and masters were reversed, finds Dulli and Lanegan in peak form, the singers reaching for transcendental deliverance while contemplating heaven, hell, temptation, and salvation amidst ominous sonic surroundings. Religious references and menacing atmospherics are nothing new to either Lanegan, the former Screaming Trees singer whose solo efforts brood about mood and mortality, or Dulli, the ex-Afghan Whigs leader intimately familiar with guilt, revenge, and personal demons. Yet recurring streaks of spirituality present in the lyrics and music also push the Gutter Twins in a cathartic direction whereby pleas for redemption and forewarnings of inescapable fate alternately swirl with fear and desperation, celebration, and resilience.
Both vocalists trade off between lead and background duties, each showcasing trademark strengths – Dulli letting loose with his soulful falsetto and sensual croon, Lanegan adding emotional weight with a deep baritone croak and sturdy, nicotine-pollinated rasp – to complementary and contrasting effect. Moreover, their propensity to change up vocal patterns on every one of the record’s dozen tunes reflects both the pair’s potent chemistry and music’s striking diversity.
Supported by a host of accompanists – vocalist Martina Topley-Bird, indie singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, and multiple Queens of the Stone Age members/contributors are among the guests – the Gutter Twins play a melodic assortment of modal folk, gritty blues, swampy trance, tribal electronica, and R&B-fused rock. Middle Eastern textures, reverse loops, and exotic instrumentation contribute to the album’s otherworldly feel. Each narrative conjures its own set of mysteries and revelations.
The opening “The Stations” tells of the arrival of an imminent rapture. Slithering guitar lines, somber cellos, and marching beats preceding a climactic “oh, children” call – the cry simultaneously referencing the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and underscoring one of Saturnalia’s running themes. “Idle Hands” sounds like a throw down between biblical adversaries inside an ancient temple, all swagger and sway until a hail-splitting guitar solo makes clear that reckoning day is night. Similarly, “Bette Noire” intimidates with cavernous vocals, sinister lyrics and lurching grooves. The latter, along with a limitless supply of gripping pop hooks and absorbing riffs, link the stripped-down and electric fare. The Gutter Twins are equally deadly and intuitive on slower material. “Seven Stories Underground” clangs away to junkyard-heap percussion. The equally stunning “I Was in Love With You” slowly turns from light to dark, dazzling with psychedelic chamber strings and heartbreaking beauty.
Aptly, the record unfolds as a series of mis-en-scene soundscapes. Dulli has long stamped his projects with cinematic grandness, and the ambitious results here speak to his auteur visions. He makes no small plans. Vocals are clear and direct; songs prize enveloping ambience, distinct tones, defined spaces, and reverberant acoustics. While heavily layered, the record exhales with human timbres and analog warmth.
Nowhere is such intimacy more evident than on the shivering ballad “Front Street,” Dulli stepping into a subversive role as teh devil’s plaything in acerbic detail singing “I am old as the star that bears you/Black as the bitch who wears you, tears you/Rips you apart and then turns it around” with the malicious intent and soul-stealing determination of someone who has no time – or want – for salvation.