Drenge infiltrated the public consciousness a couple of years ago with their raucous eponymous debut. It was a gritty assault that proved to be a particularly welcome anachronism to the bygone days of nineties grunge, encroaching upon a sonic landscape which was then dominated by bourgeois experimental bands such as Alt J and Django Django. The prevalent themes of adolescent frustration and outright nihilism evinced on that record were perhaps borne out of the duo’s geographical origins, which lie in the Derbyshire honeypot village of Castleton, a hinterland one would be inclined to assume is highly predisposed to profound senses of ennui. Superficially, the band’s tumultuous sound seemed one-dimensional and inaccessible, but when probed deeper with perseverance, it is possible to appreciate the inner slow-burning brilliance which made that album such a groundbreaker.
The ensuing critical adulation which enveloped their first effort, along with a rapidly proliferating fanbase heavily garnered from extensive touring, threatened to make the Loveless brothers susceptible to the dreaded ‘second album syndrome’. It was crucial to preserve their idiosyncratic undiluted energy whilst simultaneously building on their foundations without going into overdrive. For this endeavour, they wisely converted themselves from a twosome into a threesome by recruiting a bassist in the form of childhood friend Rob Graham, who would undoubtedly offer a little more punch when required, both in the studio and concert setup. As for production duties, they enlisted Ross Orton, the man who co-produced Arctic Monkeys’ world-conquering ‘AM’, which must surely have been a contributing factor to that decision. They also stated upon entering sessions for the follow-up that they desired for it to be a “better attempt” at conveying the sheer thrill of their live performances.
The album icebreaker is the aptly-named ‘Introduction’, a fleeting instrumental pervaded by ethereal reverb and a haunting crescendo. This blends seamlessly into ‘Running Wild’, a lumbering number which flits between cavernous guitars and rumbling bass underneath Eoin’s drawling voice. Elephantine drums fire up ‘Never Awake’ before expansive fuzz-ridden guitars muscle their way in, carrying the song towards a power chord-driven climax reminiscent of Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Don’t Sit Down Because I’ve Moved Your Chair’. The lyric “it’s so hard to get through, it’s so hard to talk to you” portrays how the band ostensibly suffer from some kind of communication breakdown, perhaps because they are engrossed by their own pubertal rage, and hence feel misconstrued by the outside world. Lead single ‘We Can Do What We Want’, with the title alone accentuating the band’s generally apathetic and rebellious attitude, is an oscillator that starts off with an uplifting and somewhat adventurous garage melody before subsiding into a more archetypal pummelling drone which continues at breakneck speed throughout. The record offers no respite by launching straight into the similarly blistering ‘Favourite Son’, which features Rory battering his drum rims and a vibrant meandering guitar pattern, along with a refreshing but sinister interlude which momentarily defuses this caterwauling romp just after the halfway mark. The tempo marginally drops in ‘The Snake’, affording listeners a rare moment to draw breath. This one serves up brooding vocals which emulate the song’s crunching and stuttering rhythm with aplomb. Next up is ‘Side By Side’ which follows a jittering trajectory permeated by an incessantly accelerating and decelerating eastern-sounding groove with the increasingly persistent crash of a cymbal emerging in the background. ‘The Woods’ demonstrates Drenge’s newly-expanded repertoire, which has clearly stemmed from raised levels of maturity, as it is the closest they come to composing a ballad, something which would have been almost inconceivable during their primitive phase. Noteworthy aspects from this include the brief System Of The Down-esque detour in the opening exchanges and Eoin delving into the realms of religion by quoting the Lord’s Prayer in the line “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. Another instrumental enters the fray with ‘Undertow’, a remarkably atmospheric track characterised by leaden distortion and a distinct tremolo effect, which is deployed at sporadic intervals, giving it a rather stilted cadence. The crepuscular ‘Standing In The Cold’ combines melancholic hooks with sweeping feedback-laden notes and at well over five minutes, it is the longest piece on the album. The pensive, self-reflective opus ‘Have You Forgotten My Name’ rounds off proceedings in a chillingly ominous yet majestic manner.
This much-anticipated sophomore LP represents a gargantuan leap forward for Drenge. They have fully succeeded in retaining their explosive vigour and ferocious approach but have advanced themselves musically with textural intricacy and thematically by exploring the poignant depths of sentimentality. The visceral undercurrent running through the record certainly upholds their status as Nirvana’s natural heirs but it is the palpable polishing of their sound and broadening of their horizons which renders them relevant in the 21st century, especially when competing with the more radio-friendly, instant-hitting Royal Blood. The East Midlands outfit have reacted impressively by keeping themselves grounded and defying the weight of expectation to deliver an evergreen masterpiece which sets a yardstick for heavy riff-orientated rock and leaves listeners stunned but with a voracious appetite for more. In light of the recent election, it seems pertinent to cite Tom Watson, the Labour MP who upon resignation from the shadow cabinet helped propel Drenge into the limelight from relative obscurity by publicly recommending them in his official parting letter. This ringing endorsement, even if nonchalantly dismissed by the band themselves, is one I sincerely hope is heeded by the powers that be, along with everyone else, because in ‘Undertow’ they have exhibited their seemingly boundless potential with exuberant swagger and suave professionalism in equal measure.