Sound — 9
Although the Screaming Trees and Afghan Whigs were dissimilar in musical style, both bands shared a brooding quality that has lived in the hearts of their fans years after their respective break-ups. Whether it was the Screaming Trees' psychedelic take on garage rock or the gloomy but sensual R&B-influenced rock of the Afghan Whigs, their records are still talked about with a fervor usually reserved for platinum-selling acts. Greg Dulli, the driving force of the Afghan Whigs was a source of constant debate in critic circles. Many scoffed at his lyrics calling them misogynistic, while Mark Lanegan was painted as a barfly in the tradition of Tom Waits. Now, after years of hinting about forming a proper project together, the two front-men have joined forces to create the Gutter Twins. With these two volatile personas heading up the proceedings, cohesion could have been an issue, but Saturnalia is focused on every level. The songs are fully realized, aided not only by Dulli's muscular guitar rhythms but also by a slew of guests musicians who help fill out the compositions with expert flair. From the opening track, The Stations, clearly influenced by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the album's tone is set by the familiar, funeral-blues vocal licks of Lanegan. Dulli takes over the vocal parts on the next song, God's Children, with it's hypnotic marching tempos and carousel-twirling guitars. This brooder wouldn't have been out of place on one of the Afghan Whigs later records. From there on, the Gutter Twins shell out one Gothic-soul stunner after another.
Lyrics — 8
The thematic tone of the album follows the same themes both musicians have been wrestling with for years. Mortality, regret and penance are towering subjects to take on in the brief span of an album, but they handle it with seasoned grace. Throughout the years, Dulli and Lanegan have crafted the kind of quote-worthy lyrics that critics die for, and Saturnalia certainly keeps this tradition alive. The fractured-twang of All Misery/Flowers includes the dive bomb, The way I burn is a son of a bitch. While Seven Stories Underground brings the observation that, heaven, so fine, heaven, is quite a climb from seven stories underground. Powerful on their own, the words come to life with the gravelly wail of Lanegan and Dulli's '70s soul-informed croons. Their voices shape-shift on every song to fit the style and vibe, never sounding strained or forced. Even when they take on poppier material such as the Beatlesque I Was in Love with You, they never sound out of their element.
Overall Impression — 9
Though Saturnalia is as dreary an album as you'd expect to hear from these liver-damaged souls, there is an air of, dare I say it, spirituality throughout the songs. There is an almost gospel sensibility here that frames the material. From the Hammond organs that evoke the feel of a Baptist revival, to the background vocal arrangements that create a choral effect, it's as if we're listening to their spiritual purging. These assured, reflective and nuanced performances could have only come from road dog veterans like Dulli and Lanegan. Both songwriters are responsible for some of the best songs on alternative-rock radio over the last fifteen years. What they've done here is take a less traditional route. Trusting their musical instincts, they let the mood-rather than a conventional song structure-dictate the direction of each arrangement. Going along with the loose nature of the songs, they have also adapted a kitchen sink production style that suits the unlikely instrumentation they've chosen. Sure, the songs are still anchored by the same guitar-bass-drums set-up the duo have built their careers on, but their brilliant use of mandolins, harmonium and other instruments are a welcome addition to their musical arsenal. Not only have they opened up their writing to interesting instrumentation, they've also chosen an impressive array of players to bring the parts to life. Martina Topley-Bird, known for her work with Tricky, contributes some thrilling vocals to the sinister sounds of The Body. Critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur appears on Idle Hands lending his haunting tenor to the chorus backing Lanegan. Co-producer Mathias Schneeberger adds his expert touch on a variety of songs with everything from bass guitar to mellotron. His creativity on this album cannot be commended enough. Think of him as the Gutter Twins' George Martin-like mad-scientist gluing everything together. With personalities as unyielding as Lanegan's and Dulli's, he must have had his hands full.