End Song is available at:
The album, All Roads Lead to Nihilism, is available at:
Beneath the Curtain
You’re the Reason I’m a Communist!
“Did You Stay Here for the Music?”
I’ll Take Whatever Love Can Give
“Light Is Attracted to Objects of Mass!”
All Roads Lead to Nihilism
2nd December, 2016
Written, recorded and produced by Matt Higgins
Mixing by Kieran Thomas (on Tracks 4, 6 and 8)
Album Art by Ciaran Daly
THERE is a sense of relief as we end the first week of this New Year…
in so much as no major celebrities have died – always a jinx when you put stuff like that on the page! Before I come to my featured act, I want to look at genres like Art-Rock and the bands making sure heaviness and anthems come into music this year; artists based around Exeter/Devon and the D.I.Y./home-made approach to music. Before all that, I have been thrilled by the promise of 2017’s music. I keep raving about Royal Blood teasing new music (a few seconds’-worth of video) and just what form that will take. I was a bit ambivalent and cautious when they released their eponymous debut in 2014. I feel the sonic palette was too limited: they were compared with The White Stripes and Queens of the Stone Age but both, maybe not until their sophomore albums, brought in more instruments (Royal Blood just have a bass – modified to sound like an electric guitar – and drums). Even if the songs have a very similar sound and do not differentiate themselves that much; it is the nuance and retrospective joys one gets that have hit me. Songs like Figure It Out seem more jumpy, groovy and savage: a hip-shaking swagger whose chorus is as snarling and moshpit-calling as you’d hope – the song ends brilliantly and perfectly, too. Others, including Loose Change and Little Monster, show how tight and incredible the duo (Ben Thatcher on sticks; Mike Kerr up-front) is. The Brighton boys have left a three-year gap between released but that is okay: if they create an album, as is hoped, that contains the best elements of their debut but brings in different shades and themes then they can create a stronger, more rounded album. If that does happen, they threaten to own 2017 and rival the likes of Laura Marling and the XX – when it comes to those acts expected to create near-career-best albums. I will go into more detail later today when I publish a piece about the most-anticipated albums of 2017 – fleshing-out my point regarding Royal Blood and how needed they are.
I will bring Royal Blood back in but the reason behind their inclusion is how this year is going to shape up. There were some bands last year that has the necessary combination of intensity, riffs and crowd-pleasing jams. A lot of the bands, maybe inspired by The 1975’s rise and Mercury nod, presented similar music: that which flirts with actual, full-blooded Rock but stays safely in the waters of Indie. I was desperate to discover a new act that grabbed you by the genitalia and threw you around the room – expunge that rather disturbing imagery from your mind! We had a lot of Electro. acts and Pop examples; Indie bands and a dominance (in the mainstream) of solo acts – the ices of Beyoncé and David Bowie releasing year-defining material. Maybe it was the way the market shaped-up and the demand for a different kind of act that has limited the influx of Rock bands. I am glad last year’s ‘best-of-the-best’ albums and 2017 tips (from BBC) mix Urban artists with Hip-Hop/R&B artists saying something more important, relevant and needed. If you really think about things carefully: how many proper, nerve-jangling bands can you name from 2016? There are many in the underground – Duke of Wolves are a London-based band I have promoted a lot – but what of the mainstream? As I stated; many the public and critics were looking for music of a different nature but 2017 looks set to change that. Whilst female solo artists are coming more into the spotlight, so too are bands like The Amazons: a Reading-based band who are among the most exciting and reputable live acts and are included in BBC’s annual list of ones to watch.
I am not saying them, along with Royal Blood, will completely change the tone and landscape of music but it is a positive start. Bands such as Queens of the Stone Age look likely to release a new album this year so the titans and new princes are coming through strong and providing music with some rather big and brash sounds. Maybe I am being biased but I have missed Rock acts and those albums synonymous with chunky riffs and a slightly undercooked, under-produced feel. Drugstore Beetles is an eager and exciting young act who are ‘Art-Rock’ but throw in a lot of other genres. It is, essentially, Matt Higgins’ project but is hard to define – it has that core of Art-Rock that recalls some of the genre’s legends. Before I expand on that, let me introduce Drugstore Beetles to you:
“A lysergic atom bomb awaiting detonation in the face of boring pop chart complacency, DrugsToRe BeETles are the self-declared, avant-garde, arty-rock indie supergroup hipster outfit combining experimental noise rock with everything else they’ve ever heard and liked. Defying boundaries, labels and even the distinctions between ‘karaoke’ and ‘live-performance’ thanks to hundreds of pounds worth of elaborate musical equipment including a sampler and of course a keytar. A hyperbolic dichotomy of self-deprecating arrogance surly with an innumerable back catalogue of exotic influences alluding to ‘in yer face’ bands such as XTC, Wire, Psychic TV, The Adicts and of course Justin Bieber. Dazzling neo-symphonic synths, spindly electro-etherealism punctuated by a mismatch of souped-up energetic house beats courtesy of electronic drums, and an orgy of syrupy sound effects through innovative sampling methods, and not to mention a Spanish harmonica player named Alejandro…This are music like you are ever heard it before…”
As you can see from that list and description, Drugstore Beetles is not your average drum-and-guitar band who offer little colour and variation. The thing that appeals to me most is their energy and tough sound but there is ample sophistication and experimentation to keep the artier, more Electro.-minded consumer delighted. When one thinks of Art-Rock you imagine names like David Bowie and Arcade Fire; Velvet Underground and Radiohead. They are, I would say, the finest of the breed, and between them, among the most influential musicians of all time. Although there was a trio in the original line-up; the music being produced now is very much Higgins creating the music: as you can see with the biography, he is self-deprecating and humorous. I hope the fact they have hundreds of pounds’ worth of equipment does not change them and turn Higgins into Kanye West-like egotists – getting all fancy and having ideas above their stations! As I said; Drugstore Beetles is not pure Art-Rock but use it as a starting-point. With this genre, as opposed to Alternative and pure Rock, you have the option to include electronic parables and invented beats; inverted piano lines and more considered, deep soundscapes. At the core, one must remember, is that Rock vigour but there are options open for musicians. Drugstore Beetles are compelled by legendary noisemakers XTC and Wire but one could see them smoking a cigarette and vibing to a classic Bowie vinyl; drinking beer whilst singing along (maybe tunelessly) to some awesome Radiohead or nodding their heads to a (The) Velvet Underground gem. Maybe I am pre-judging but it seems like they may: you hear their songs and hear suggestions of those acts, but above it all, a band impossible to define. That originality and complexity will see them make gains as they inch closer to mainstream appeal. Drugstore Beetles has not secured a label deal but one suspects the freedom to record as Higgins’ wishes – and touring at smaller venues – suits him well now.
The music is copasetic and getting better with each new release, I can tell. Drugstore Beetles has a great sound and have already overcome the hurdles many young artists fall victim to – a lack of new photos on social media and information about the original members. I could not find a Twitter account – perhaps I am searching too literally – but that is a definite consideration for them. With that, Drugstore Beetles has easy access to a new band of fans and all sorts of promoters, venues and stations. I shall look at where Drugstore Beetles emanates and the music scene there but wanted to look at artists who take a more honest/affordable D.I.Y. route to music-making. Even if the band/Higgins boast of their ‘fancy’ equipment on Facebook (translation: affordable but fit-for-purpose) then it is that modesty and restrictiveness that does that favours. There is still that battle between the studio-based musicians (mainstream acts and those who can afford regular trips) and those musicians who have no choice but to create music from their bedroom. Whilst the former is the desire of most artists; I feel the home-made vibes and work ethic is a lot more accessible and freeing. Even if you have very little cash in the bank you can, with basic recording equipment and an iPad (other technologies from bloated multi-billion-dollar corporations are available) create full and professional-sounding songs. Even if you are a band who prefer the drum-bass-guitar dynamic that does not mean you are cheating and hindered by technology. You get microphones/multi-track recorders that can be purchased for a couple of hundred quid and act as an all-in-one studio. Whether you fancy coruscating Electronic beats or beer-soaked booziness you are pretty sorted. Drugstore Beetles’ Matt Higgins has relied on this sort of set-up but, one suspects, will hanker for the comforts of the studio one day.
When listening to All Roads Lead to Nihilism, one gets a tangible sense of the album’s title: all the anger, deep questions and searing emotions one imagines when casting their mind into nihilistic realms. Given the way the political world has shaped in the last year; their album is more relevant and clairvoyant than the day it was conceived. Drugstore Beetles is/are among those acts doing things in a more old-skool way and has infectious personality and solid songs to supplement that ethic. I shall come to looking at their music soon, but before I do, wanted to look at the Drugstore Beetles’ home: Exeter. You might hear that word alongside the search term ‘famous musicians from Devon’ and come up a little lost and short. Whilst counties like Devon, Cornwall and Dorset have a lot of musicians they tend to play certain genres. That reputation/image of Folk musicians – and those who play more gentle, ‘Radio 2/4-suited music is well-founded – but there are plenty of young and energetic bands playing here. The trouble is, when it comes to the established, famous musicians, they tend to hail from other parts of the U.K. That said, legends like Thom Yorke attended university in Exeter and Metronomy are from Totnes (Devon); Chris Martin grew up in Exeter whereas Kasabian’s Sergio Pizzorno was born in Newton Abbot (Devon). That is about it, to be honest, but that is not to suggest there is no local scene around places like Exeter. I was a little limited about my list of musicians from Devon: Matt Bellamy’s Muse, although born in Cambridge, moved to Devon in the mid-1980s following his parents’ divorce. I digress: there are some great venues in Exeter that are supporting some fantastic new artists.
CAVERN is a quaint, colourful and characterful that provides a platform for Indie and Rock music. It is one of the most reputable and popular venues in the town and a must-play for any new artist worth their salt. Exeter Phoenix, in addition to being a cinema and multi-use venue, is a fantastic and scenic destination for any musician who wants to perform in Exeter. Blackboy Road’s The Sorry Head and The Monkey Suit are two youthful but fit-for-all spots that boast bare walls (The Monkey Suit) and ample parking (The Sorry Head). I know Lemon Grove – the University of Exeter’s on-campus venue – will see Blossoms play there in March and is somewhere for artists to not only cut their teeth but appeal to a new generation – once they have established themselves and looking for a hospitable and packed place to get the sweat flying. Mix in the likes of The Old Fire House and you not only have a full and acclaimed set of venues but a very eclectic one. If destinations like Lemon Grove and CAVERN are more for the Indie/Rock bands then The Old Fire House and The Monkey Suit are smaller, more family-ready spaces that could tease acoustic artists and less ‘abrasive’ musicians. I feel we often overlook just how vibrant and engaging local music scenes can be. Maybe it is the lack of local media – or their inability to spread and find audience past their own town/county – or the relative ignorance of the mainstream. I was unaware of the richness and variation of Exeter’s venues and the sort of bands (like Blossoms) who are heading down there. Maybe there is that stereotype, and the far-away counties like Devon are rural and quiet, but reality begs to differ. Drugstore Beetles certainly do and will/have taken full advantage of the town’s fabled stomping ground. This local exposure and the sort of musicians around them – when they were playing gigs as a three-piece/band – inspired the album and driven Drugstore Beetles to succeed and continue. I am sure they (if Higgins is recruiting members for the road) will want to perform in busier, bigger areas but have a pretty solid music scene in Exeter.
All Roads Lead to Nihilism is not the first foray into music from Drugstore Beetles. Exposure was their single released in 2012 and is, as they call it on BandCamp “A Right Existential Medley”. There is a sense of dread and warning as it is said “Crimes and hobbies” (and vice versa) and know – from an existential point of view – we are “all connected”. An intriguing and unique song whose beginnings mixed wave-crashing electronic hang and tight beats. The vocals have that far-off, processed sound that makes them appear underwater and robotic. It is the appropriate way to push the song and give it the conviction and sound it requires. A short number that runs in at under two minutes: “And life is just a dream” it is claimed. The track gets you thinking and will easily hook you in. Being quite short and direct, it never outstays its welcome yet the composition – all its threads and mix of dystopian and dreamy shades – will get you listen again. The vocal is treated but it never washes out the emotion or makes it sound fake in any way. A powerful song that shows the extent of Matt Higgins’ songwriting talent (writing and recording pretty much solo at that point). Differing from a lot of Rock/Alternative sounds at the time: other genres are mixed in and you get a real mix of artists and decades in the song – yet it never sounds truly like anyone else. The album is the first real cohesive effort and, whilst Higgins is at the front and leading; you get a lot more variation and sounds coming out. It is unfair and hard to compare a song with an album – in terms of scope and quality – but All Roads Lead to Nihilism is a varied and stunning L.P. that has quieter, more introspective moments and raw, hard-hitting songs. The main difference I note, between the 2012 song and the 2016 album, is the confidence and production sounds. Matt Higgins takes control of production but (the album) is afforded a lot more fluidity and emotional range. I shall go into more detail about other songs across the record but am impressed by the individuality of the music and the consistency of the album. There is no sense of amateurism (which seems an unfair shot) but for a band quite new and making the first album it is very professional and solid. Those are hard qualities to come by so is a big plus to Drugstore Beetles.
I wanted to focus on End Song because it seems to define the album’s meanings and intentions – tying up a lot of the themes and threads into a single moment. There is a grumbling, bass-like hop that blends with a hissing, compacted percussion sound: together, it is a rather atmospheric and edgy way to bring the song up. Knowing what has come before in the album, and the type of sound and themes we could discover, there is a sense of anticipation as the introduction plays. It is one of the most interesting vocals on the album as it is not quite as tense and fraught as other tracks and has a strange sense of romanticism and ease to it. Having discovered album-mate songs that are anxious and angry; here, we have a track that deals with some hard truths but never feels suffocated and foreboding. “Give ‘em all a thousand years/and give ‘em time to think/Don’t they know that this love they sought has caused an ugly stink?” might not seem like the most romantic opening but it gets the brain working and thinking. What the “love” refers to is not quite clear. You imagine what it could refer to but I was thinking about wider society and our nation. All Roads Lead to Nihilism does have one or two offerings of traditional love – where our man is rallying against a cruel lover – but the album deals more with the nation and its people; topics that detail more important and universal concerns. For that reason, I got thinking about imperialism and consumerism. That is not a lucky guess because future lines investigate wars we fight and the possessions we cling to. It is a fascinating dichotomy but one that, strangely, seems to hang together. The wars we engage in don’t mean a thing are as futile and waged for the wrong reasons – we never discuss things and get people sat down to get things hammered out.
Whereas nations are too eager to destroy one another and bloodshed is pointless; we get fixated on insignificant ideals and immaterial objects. That sense of over-consumption and possession is looked at in the song. Al the things and objects gained are a passion and poison and part of the “common touch”. If Higgins keeps his voice firm and level-headed then the words become more aggrieved and concerned as time progresses. Things are not right in society and this, as End Song professes, needs to be overhauled. Love is the common thread but something that, if utilised for ill means and gains, can be destructive and hateful. It got me wondering, when love is mentioned in that context, whether there is a blend of the universal and personal. One can, when first reading the song, think about wars and destruction but there is a sense of the homemade and singular. Perhaps the hero has been in a relationship where conflict and possessions have caused too much damage. Exchanging barbed words and investing in petty fights has shown its scars; clinging to meaningless things and caught up in things that do not matter and has caused cracks – that is all coming to the surface. Maybe I am looking too deeply at the words but I get a real sense of double-meaning and mystery. There is the rather obvious sentiment – war being stupid and buying “those ugly things” is poisonous – but End Song is not as clear-cut as you’d imagine. I have to come back to get another crack at the words and just what they apply to. Higgins’ vocal is, in a way, a red herring and poker face that means you are not spoon-fed the real truth. It is a commanding performance and backed with incredible backing and instrumental weight. By the end, you have your opinions but never know whether they are as the author intended. End Song is a stunning song from Drugstore Beetles and part of a fantastic album.
All Roads Lead to Nihilism houses so many great songs. Beneath the Curtain reminds me a bit of Joy Division and New Order and has that Art-Rock slant to it. There is urgency and intensity but the main thing that comes through is the detailed synths. and complex soundscapes. It is an emotional and compelling piece that sees our lead “drowning in the spotlight” and telling himself to “stop right now”. Whether there is a sense of gig nerves, waiting behind the curtain and seeming too oblivious; these grand ideas set the hero up for a comedown. It is interesting unravelling the song and seeing what lies at its heart. There is that balance of risk-taking and dream-perusing but caution and reality coming into play. Few bands look at subjects like this so was fascinated by the song. I may have got the perception wrong but that is how it comes across to me. Whilst the vocals and lyrics urge the listener to think hard and imagine; the swirling and cosmic composition strikes the brain and registers deep in the mind. You cannot ignore the weight and colour that swirls around the song. I have mentioned and referred to the band as Rock and spiky at various points but they are a lot more intelligent and restrained than a lot of their peers. You get the sort of thought-provoking sounds of Talking Heads and Joy Division but there is enough to keep die-hard Rock fans and festival-goers enthralled. “Did You Stay Here for the Music?” has that consistent lo-fi production and one of the most down-the-bottom-of-a-well vocals on the album. In terms of compositions, it is one of the barest on the record: aside from some plinking electronics, it boasts a solid and disciplined (hollow) beat. It cracks along in the background but the vocal is framed.
“Did you like your talk of English weather being second-guessed?” is a brilliant question and one of the standout lines. Our man asks whether (the hero) stayed for tea or for the music. It is a look at British obsessions and sensibilities. We obsess over meteorological insignificance and the monarchy; the high streets are all generic and the same whilst many are barricading their doors and applying sturdy locks – lest the lesser elements of society break their way in. Following Brexit and a general feeling of xenophobia, the song could be applied to that loneliness and disconnection many of us feel. The track asks whether the music is the only pure and good thing – is that the only reason you would put up with all the other crap? Because of the seriousness of the topic, the composition does not intrude: allowing that vocal to remain clear and uncluttered. Asleep is one of the most uplifting and sprightly tracks on the record. That might seem like an odd description but there is a sense of carefree and positive whilst the lyrics paint pictures of sedate sofa-crashing and endless sleep. The hero is on the sofa and waiting for things to wash over. Whether the issue of mental health – our man figuring out what is real and perceived – you picture a slightly dented soul lying down and waiting for the worst to be over. It might sound like a drag and a rather heavy piece but that compositional lightness and nimble affection balances the anxious foreground and provides levity and light. “Pour all my emotion down the wishing well” is one of the starkest sentiments on the album but one that seems to suggest future hope – our man is not giving in but is in a place where things are getting too much. “You’re the Reason I’m a Communist!” is the bounciest and most Punk song on the album.
It is a focused track that aims its spit at a subject who is being slammed and exposed. There is no reason and logic at the minute: our hero is black-and-white and voting for The Green Party; he is lying and filled with apathy. Whether a shot at the government or a particular person: there is that rebellion and lack of caring. Despite Drugstore Beetles being a small unit – Higgins on synths., guitar and vocals; Ollie Bond on drum, keytar (and ‘D.J.-type’ as it is said on Facebook) with Alejandro Salamanca Rodriguez handling harmonica as was originally perceived; more a one-man device now – there are no wasted moment and that allows the music to be tight and together. It is not just about Higgins and his great songwriting: each song gets you thinking about wider issues in the world. One cannot argue how much Higgins has progressed as a songwriter and how assured his tracks are. The lyrics are among the most unique you will hear and certainly do not stray into cliché realms. The words are often witty, deep and personal whereas the compositions are nuanced and compelling. You never get bored of the album as its ten songs are short and to-the-point. There is so much depth and detail you have to come back time again to hear stuff you have missed – the mark of a truly great album.
I know the Drugstore Beetles will be considering this year and just what they hope to achieve. That all-important album is out and ended last year with a good dose of rouse, experimentation and fascination. Just reading the song titles and one is curious and perked. There are few acts that can muster that and Drugstore Beetles should not lose focus. Higgins has crafted a solid and fascinating album that shows what accomplished songwriter he is; bringing that together with the live experience and reputation – he is armed and ready for the coming months. I am unsure what gigs he/a band have coming up or where he’s headed but I am sure he will have some demand and support in Devon. I always bring London up because, aside from being my neck of the woods, it is overflowing with great venues for all sorts of acts. I can envisage Drugstore Beetles being comfortable in places like The Black Heart and The Fighting Cocks; maybe the Camden’s The Underworld or Aces and Eights Saloon Bar. Most of these places can be found to north of Westminster and just south of Harringay – a nice, compacted blob of venues within staggering distance of one another (except for The Fighting Cocks which is on the outskirts of the city). Regardless, there are ample venues that lust after great Rock bands but are set-up for artists who bring in elements like Electronic and Art-Rock with some pastoral colours. The truth is there are plenty of great places to perform around the country but it is the same predicament for every new artist: getting the music out there and finding someone to push it to venues and in D.J.s’ hands. I am not sure if Drugstore Beetles has/is looking for management but it would help having a body dedicated to that sort of promotion. Regardless of that, Higgins should keep going and continue releasing music. The local standing (for Drugstore Beetles) is firm but I feel the act will be reaching new faces this year.
Aside from social media, and the potential that holds, there are new counties to play and I am sure Drugstore Beetles will be looking at new material sometime in 2017. I will end things but looking back at my early themes and how they apply to Drugstore Beetles. I am pumped to find just what is forthcoming from the mainstream and whether there will be a shift from the solo artists and the stunning albums that came from there. Whether from Beyoncé, Frank Ocean or David Bowie there was a distinct theme and thread that ran through each album – a more relevant and modern set of songs that strayed away from love and relations to talk about something more inspiring and thought-provoking. It is that zeal for intelligent, universal sounds that will carry on but the monsters of Rock and teasing new music. Whether Royal Blood can live up to the hype – and account for the three-year absence – remains to be seen but I am positive. 2016 was a bit of a crappy year in many respects but music never let us down. I am looking at the new generation of artists coming through and seeing which will remain and which will be here for a short time. Drugstore Beetles interest me because they (Higgins and any touring members) can provide that in-your-face urgency and buckets of sweat but capable of switching to something more emotive and peculiar. The music and personability mix humour and candour with some phenomenal professional performances and some incredible songwriting. I know Drugstore Beetles’ sounds bring in technology and various instruments but it has that grizzled core and Rock heart. I have looked at D.I.Y. music and how it is not only attractive to many but unavoidable – studios pricing musicians out and far too elitist. There are cheaper studios but they are still pricey: the cost of creating a single song can often run into the avenues of so-many-hundreds. By mixing studio-made elements with home-made jams you get the best of both worlds and ensures, regardless of your budget, there are options available.
Whether you consider Drugstore Beetles pure Art-Rock or a more varied chameleon that is down to individual discussion. What I do know is that Higgins is raring to go and getting the music out there. Competition is always fierce so those ambitions may take a while to be realised. There is no reason to suggest the Exeter band cannot get airplay across big stations and perform at larger venues. Music is not an elitist and opens its doors for those willing to put in the graft and commitment; create music that differs from the masses and provides inspiration and personality. A drugstore beetle (or Stegobium paniceum), of the monotypic genusstegobium, is a small, brown insect often found in dried plant products. Whether there is irony or a metaphor in that name (Drugstore Beetles) you cannot accuse Higgins’ moniker of being forgettable, average or common. The music is bold but not overly cocky and possessed of many colours and sides. A fascinating artist who does simplicity and complex without breaking a sweat; creating an album full of quirk, charm and anger. I will follow Drugstore Beetles’ plight this year and how far they/Higgins can go. If kept firm and strong, I see the Exeter musician growing in stature and securing some rather high-profile gigs. Until that happens, listen to the new music and keep an eye on the social media pages – if you see a Twitter account for Drugstore Beetles, let me know. This year has started strong but, with acts like Drugstore Beetles around, it has the potential to be…
ONE incredible and busy one for new music.
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