Stream: The Entrance Band “Lookout!”
“Grim Reaper Blues Pt. 2” demonstrates exactly the differences between the Entrance that released the memento mori Prayer of Death in 2006 and the Entrance Band that released its first official full-band all-songs-written-together album this month. The original “Grim Reaper Blues”—the opener of Entrance’s Prayer of Death—was an L.A. favorite; singer/guitarist Guy Blakeslee could tease out the first notes of that viciously distinctive hook and audiences would surge forward as one. But this time when the Grim Reaper comes, our narrator knows he’ll be reunited with his love “on that golden shore,” instead of the original’s far more ominous “world unknown.” It’s a small difference, but emblematic—while Prayer of Death represented a coming-to-terms with mortality, it cloaked it in sounds so raw and ominous that at times it sounded more like a howl than a serenity prayer. The Entrance Band brings back air and light to that dark room.
When Prayer of Death was released, the failing policies of the American government had become increasingly apparent to all but the most ardent right-wing supporters, and “hope”—to borrow a campaign slogan—was in diminishing supply. Enlisting the considerable talents of bassist/violinist Paz Lenchantin and percussionist Derek W. James, Blakeslee created a band to lend his primarily acoustic folk-blues some extra sonic power. The resulting album made a powerful response to the times. It was an anxious rumination on an uncertain future where death is the only sure thing—more tense, trenchant and darkly cathartic than any other album in recent memory. Three years later, America—however briefly—has begun to flirt with the idea of optimism again. And though the Entrance Band composed and began performing most of these songs well before anyone could have reasonably predicted the shift in the national mood, The Entrance Band is as much a match to slightly happier times as its predecessor was to gloom and ruin. The songwriting is as solid as ever, but the sound and focus have changed.
With RTX’s Nadav Eisenman at the boards, The Entrance Band’s songs display a cleaner and more immediate sound, replacing the claustrophobic feel of Prayer of Death with a Butch Vig-ian production quality that recalls the big clear sound—and at times the sweeping arena balladry—of early ‘90s alternative guitar rock. Even the songs closest to Prayer of Death’s twisty electric blues are presented with extra gloss. “Lives” is the song perhaps least predicted by anything that Blakeslee has previously recorded—it sounds ready for heavy rotation in KROQ’s 1991 lineup, in between “Rhinoceros” and “Three Strange Days.” And it’s hard to imagine anything quite as terrifying as Prayer of Death’s “Pretty Baby” fitting into the flow of this album.
Opener “Lookout!” is another live favorite, an electrified reprise of a version that originally appeared on Entrance’s 2003 Honey Moan EP and in significantly rawer form on a stopgap live “bootleg” available in limited numbers from the band between official releases. It’s about as musically ominous as this album gets, but it’s followed immediately by “M.L.K.,” an explicitly positive statement of solidarity with the titular civil rights leader. Blakeslee’s heartfelt lyrics and descending melodic guitar lines lock with Lenchantin’s bass and James’ tight beat on one of the strongest tracks on the album. “Still Be There” hangs on Blakeslee’s haunting vocals and clears space for the thick sludge of “Sing For the One” and “You’re So Fine,” probably the stoniest rockers on a comparatively clean album. After the “Reaper” reprise that follows comes the straight forward rock of “That is Why,” followed by the uncharacteristically airy chill-out ballad “Lives,” which sounds like it could have been a show closer on the Achtung Baby tour. Penultimate “You Must Turn” is a dizzying melange of echoey guitars and difficult time signatures that features a beautiful sitar-esque guitar solo in its last third. And finally “Hourglass,” one of the most beautiful melodies that Blakeslee has written. It ends an occasionally frustrating album on an incredibly high note.
I’m not trying to play armchair musician and take a band to task for not sticking to a previously established sound. But I did need more than a few listens to overcome the shock of the new. On the band’s website, Blakeslee explains: “We want our music to reach as many people as it can.” With The Entrance Band, it certainly sounds like that goal is closer at hand than ever before—but fans of Prayer of Death should understand that The Entrance Band sounds quite different, occasionally flirting so closely with alt-rock sonic textures that the band’s voice becomes a little less distinctive. Blakeslee is making a conscious effort to explore new directions with this band, whether fans of Prayer of Death agree with it or not, and who can blame him? The Entrance Band will definitely give second thoughts to those fans who painted Blakeslee as a morbid death rocker. But there are times when it’s hard not to miss a little of the menace and danger of Prayer of Death, even as you wish the band all the creative freedom in the world. Sometimes it’s a kick to get spooky, and this album is more groovy than gruesome.