First, a disclaimer: The members of The Concept are friends of mine. I call them “my adopted nephews” and they thank me in the liner notes of their new album. That’s why I’m reviewing their CD, “The Empire Penguin Strikes Back” here in PopCult, instead of over in the NewSounds blog. It’s not a major ethical dilemma, or anything like that. I just thought it’d be easier to explain to my regular PopCult readers. So, even though I’m a fan and friend of the band, and I’ve had them on Radio Free Charleston several times, I will strive to be as objective as possible. I also shot and edited the promo video for their shows that’s posted right below this post here at PopCult, and did the same for the “video blogs” that you’ll see over the next two days. Part of being objective is letting you know about my personal relationship with the band. Now you know, and knowing is half the battle!
Named for their combined love of Star Wars and Penguins, The Concept’s first full-length CD, “The Empire Penguin Strikes Back” opens with half a minute of moody synthesized sounds that signals some musical growth from these fun-loving Charleston-based punksters. The first real song is “Ye To The 10th Degree,” a hot blast of high-energy punk with slashing guitars, a pounding bass and driving percussion. It’s a great opening salvo with lots of false starts and tempo changes.
I’ve got to take a moment to mention the terrific production by singer/guitarist Mike Withrow with Greg Hunt and James Skeens of Charleston’s Cerberus Studios. This is a state-of-the-art punk album, with clearly-recorded vocals, and a killer mix. There are parts of this CD that remind me of the work of Phil Spector–before he flipped out and started shooting people. The band couldn’t have come up with a better sounding CD if they’d dropped a bundle to record in a bigger city studio. This is a great homegrown musical project.
The next cut on the CD is “Last Of The Emohicans,” a goofy little bit of punk fun featuring drummer Ross Anderson on vocals. This gives you a little glimpse at how entertaining these guys can be performing live. Their good-natured humor is a huge part of the appeal.
After that, we get a song familiar to fans of Radio Free Charleston: “That’s The One” was featured way back on episode seven of RFC, a year-and-a-half ago. This new recording shows how much the band has progressed since then. When they first appeared on RFC, The Concept had only been together a couple of months. It was a great tune, but it wasn’t fully formed yet. Now it’s a minor pop masterpiece, with Dave Cantrell’s percolating bass supporting layers of guitars and vocals to an epic effect.
“Out Of Nowhere” is a revelation. It’s the real proof that The Concept are about more than just novelty songs about Kool-Aid (not that there’s anything wrong with those). This tune starts out with guest keyboards from Scott Ilar that bring a whole new dimension to the band’s sound. The first two minutes of this song lives somewhere between hip-hop, ska and thrash-jazz. Right when you’re captivated by the groove, the band shifts gears and launches into a classic power-punk attack that’s catchier than 90% of the music you’d hear at the Warped Tour.
“Not The Only” is one of The Concept’s crowd-pleasing tunes, and it’s never sounded better than it does on this recording. The production is first-rate and really brings the song to life and captures the power that the band has live.
After that, we get a cover of the Tom Petty song, “Learning To Fly.” This is a real gut-buster. The Concept started doing this song in concert as a goof. They do parts of it in the style of the “Cookie Monster is angry” metal bands, with growling, incomprehensible vocals. It never fails to leave the crowd in stitches. Here, they bounce back and forth between a respectful cover version and an over-the-top growling metal clusterfudge. And they prove that they can handle both styles with ease.
The CD’s closer is the instrumental track “Ben’s Song,” a tribute to a fallen friend. It’s a classy way to end the album, with a driving, yet somber, punk coda. This CD is tucked into a nice DIY package, under a wonderful cover by Chris Woodall. My only criticism is that the CD is a little short. Seven (and a half) songs leaves you wanting more. However, since there isn’t really a bum cut in the bunch, this is more impressive than if they’d released a CD that uses half-baked tunes as filler, just to pad the running time.
You’ll be able to buy this CD this weekend, at the two CD release shows. Friday night at The Blue Parrot, and Saturday’s All-ages show at The La Belle Theater in South Charleston. You’ll hear more about those shows in the coming days here in PopCult.