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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New: Royal Headache – High

When I was 15, Royal Headache released their debut album. I wouldn’t hear it until I was 17, but by that point, I’d heard all the stories. The insane gigs. Their skull-hollowing intensity. The brutal and complete dedication that each member put into recording and performance. The first time I heard that album, it made me want to meet this band. It wasn’t the first, or last time, I’ve had that reaction upon hearing a band upon the first time, but it was particularly strong with Royal Headache. They put everything I wanted into a song – crunchy melody, maelstrom ferocity, simple songwriting that made you want to scream with ecstasy and stab yourself in the brain. Real, pure, unadulterated emotion.

Then Royal Headache disappeared. At least from my line of sight. It wasn’t the end of the world – there were still plenty of bands to enjoy and feast upon, especially in Sydney. There wasn’t exactly a drought. But there was always that gap that I knew I wasn’t going to get to experience, the Royal Headache pub show that seemed to have single-handedly inspired so many bands and projects that I currently adored.

A few weeks ago, Royal Headache played the Opera House. It was great, one of the best shows I’ve been to, ever. And then, they release this fucking gem. A gem it is, through and through. It’s rare, beautiful, and should be worn proudly. It’s shiny, brilliantly so. There’s too much good stuff to say about it.

But the thing that touches me most is how it carries the Royal Headache legacy. Not in the sense that “OH GOOD, YOU CAN PLAY A SONG”, but moreover in the fact that I know that the 17 year old shitbag Ryan would be thrashing his head just as much as the current shitbag Ryan is. Sure, “High” is an old song, but the fact that Royal Headache nailed every aspect of it onto record is a testament that they haven’t lost any of the magic that got me, and so many others, interested in the first place. All the elements of the band we know and love are there – the soul, the pain, the ability to make you press repeat until your fingers are bleeding – and I don’t think anyone is surprised. Just ecstatic. Welcome the fuck back, Royal Headache.