Kings of New England
On the Cusp
ou’ve heard it all before. “Rough.” “Tarnished.” “Brusque.” “Jangly.” It’s the same illusion wrapped differently but documented all the same: that some albums are simple but brilliant mistakes. On some albums the engineer and producer slip away from the decks because they see themselves as buffers to inspiration and honesty. On some albums the band’s D.I.Y. approach is so overwhelming that the reins of any external guidance only adulterate the work. So the myth is crystallized under certain figures like Fugazi, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr. as well as through whole genres like Punk and ‘great’ music is viewed as being born from improvisation and intuition rather than perspicacity or purpose.
Yet all those bands were brilliant and absolutely cognizant of what they created. Sure, the conduit under which they articulated their brilliance may be festooned with the qualifiers mentioned above, but to stop short at simply the manner in which the guitars are tuned or the mixing process vastly under-represents what made them astounding. Herein lies the frustration when listening to Kings of New England’s On The Cusp: it operates on the superficial elements of sound even when something quite fantastic is possibly clawing from beneath.
The opening chords of “Topper Harley” and, indeed, the music in general seem to mine the domain of classic rock groups like MC5 and Black Sabbath, the rhythm and lead guitars’ interplay and grind obvious but simultaneously dated. It’s an interesting start, but the music’s Metal predilections come to an end when Roger Barrett comes in on vocals. Evoking a rather large swath of punk and post-punk bands, his performance is hoarse throughout. “Are You the Kid” is reminiscent of These Arms Are Snakes, balancing rigid rock melodies with fringes of punk. The difference, of course, is that These Arms Are Snakes offered a far more rarefied version and the tension between the two genres is exercised with more precision than what Kings of New England offer.
“Dot The I’s” vocal refrain recalls Mission of Burma’s dynamics, a juxtaposition of voices that are equally jagged but differing in octave. In fact, this is a leitmotif with Punk in general and its rather typical appearance on the album neither recreates nor reconfigures it, even when bands like The Blood Brothers have managed to make it a staple of their work. Yet the irony about the different methods, influences, and signatures Kings of New England have culled is that none of them is necessarily poorly executed. Sometimes they even manage to provide bursts of great originality like “2 Year Stand,” a short, instrumental piece that manages to be surprisingly complex and layered.
The band’s fidelity to a particular sound is strange, especially since their best moments come when they move even slightly away from their M.O., like the breakdown on “The Golden Cove” or the string samples that adorn “Asleep in Wolves Clothing.” Such appearances nag the listener since the possibilities are thrown out before being swallowed up by the band’s own insufferable (but somehow admirable) dedication. At this writing Kings of New England have officially dissolved as a band, which is an unfortunate outcome considering what they could have become. With time they might have moved beyond the myths their sound evoked and proven themselves as simply ‘great’ musicians.