Album Review: Royal Headache – High

I’ve recounted this story about a million and one fucking times, but here goes again: I was too young when the first Royal Headache album came out. Far too young. I was 15 years old, and on a grunge kick – Foo Fighters, Silverchair, and Pearl Jam thrived on the “Rye-Rye’s 3$$entials’ Playlist. I had absolutely no clue that a whole world of actually decent music lay at my feet, broiling just a few suburbs away. Bands like Royal Headache, Circle Pit and The Nevada Strange were just a few examples of incredible acts that were re-inventing rock and roll sounds, and they existed within shouting distance. I was the luckiest man alive, and I didn’t even know it. By the time my conscience had been pricked by punk music, and the wealth of talent that existed in my backyard, the times had moved on, and these bands all appeared to have reached their critical apex, either breaking up or facing the problems of fame.

This was a double-edged sword – it made way for a whole legion of new bands, but I, along with a growing stream of 16-20 year olds that have begun to litter Blackwire and the Red Rattler, have been constantly badgered with the fact that we never got to see THE Royal Headache. They were a band from a lost time, who managed to surge past the knowing few and infect the mainstream with one of the most affecting albums of our time. It’s easy to stand by that statement and repeat it without a trace of hyperbole – their self titled debut is a masterpiece of soul, punk and rock ‘n’ roll, a pop album that sits eloquently but uneasily amongst the best. Whereas forgettable major label funded “indie” music dominated playlists for mere moments, the first time that I, and many others, heard Royal Headache, was a punch to the guts. Suicide sat alongside desperation in a romantic, hurtling fashion, and I’d never heard anything like it.

Which is why I approached the new Royal Headache record with slight trepidation. Don’t get me wrong – their Opera House show was a triumph, and similar notions have been relayed about their David Liebe Hart support. Furthermore, their singles “High” and “Another World” have been getting a thrashing on the aforementioned “Rye-Rye’s 3$$entials’ Playlist. But those are singles, and their ability to put on a show has rarely been regarded as anything less than incredible. An album is a different beast – from a personal standpoint, listening to the ‘High’ could have represented the death knell of my favourite band.

Lay your fears aside – ‘High’ is magnificent. It’s a sophomore album that solidifies everything you and I loved about this band, and rounds out Royal Headache’s distinct sound, stretching their abilities and our own expectations of what they’re capable of. Blood, guts and spunk pulse through this record with zeal, clenching and releasing, creating a tumultuous, exhausting and uplifting ride.

Just like the debut, there isn’t a song on here that feels out of place, or obligatory. There’s the ear-puncturing eye-gougers, such as the hurtling “Another World” and “Fantasy”, a reflection of a time when dreams had yet to be dashed, and “Garbage”, which allows Shogun to spew hatred over riffs of fuzzy bile and a plodding bass line, culminating in a song that slashes with the same crushed glass that it begins with. There’s the power-pop, anti-love blitz of “Love Her If I Tried” that takes a hurtfully self-examining look at unrequited romance, and the crooning stabs of “Wouldn’t You Know” provides a lump-in-your-throat respite from the surrounding cacophony of the rest of the album.

However, it’s “Carolina” that stands out on ‘High’ most – a classic rock song propelled into the modern century. Strummed guitars placated by gentle melodies, and a voice that sails over the top, retelling a story that’s got a pain in there that would turn even the most crooked, unfeeling human into a dough-eye sobber. It’s a song that reflects that rock bottom moment, when you’ve transitioned from fighting, a gnashing beast, to a crumpled rag, and the crowd’s reaction and pity to such a sight.

This is a new band with the same mission statement as the one they stamped all those years ago. Royal Headache have grown older, broken up, faced new problems. ‘High’ is the album that showcases that evolution; the songs are generally slower and tinged with more soul, as well as more outward looking. But have they lost what made them such a great band in the first place? The long answer is to listen to this record over and over again, marvelling at each track, and soaking up this band and their worth. The short answer is to look at the cover for ‘High’, a bold, grey shot of the Petersham Water Tower. After trips around the world, festival slots and all the press and media that can be feasibly thrown at a band, they’ve chosen that fucking water tower to adorn their new album….to me, that speaks volumes. To me, that means that Royal Headache are the same band I fell in love with. And in my opinion, the contents of ‘High’ proves that.

‘High’ comes out this Friday, August 26th. Pre-order through the band’s Bandcamp, or go to a record store. If you’re reading this in the US, do yourself a favour and go see this band – they’re touring the nation right now. Also, if you’d like to hear the record before it’s released, NPR is streaming it here.

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