Looking back, Tiger Army was one of the earliest punk-affiliated groups to open my eyes to the potential of infusing modern punk with sounds from times gone by. Sure, the California trio started as a an American psychobilly act scoffed at by European purists, but playing alongside bands like Rancid and Bad Religion in the late 90’s introduced the sound to a new generation of punk fans – myself included.
Frontman and visionary Nick 13 has never written the same album twice. The same can be said about Tiger Army’s fifth full-length, and return after a nine-year studio hiatus, V •••–. The latest chapter picks up right where Music From Regions Beyond left off. For those unfamiliar, the 2007 album found the band excitedly dipping their toes in the atmospheric and mellow waters of a significant tempo change. The clicking and thumping of Nick 13’s furious upright bass slowed to a pensive, contemplative state, with many of the album’s most memorable tracks still serving as a playlist to moonlight drives down the barren roadways of yesteryear. While headbangers and moshers may turn up their noses, like a crisp black rose, there’s a dark beauty defining present day Tiger Army and V •••–.
With occasional pedal steel, slide, alto saxophone, piano, violin, synthesizer and clear undertones that owe their hip shaking swagger to Elvis and company, Tiger Army puts their best foot forward in defining themselves as a bridge between the here and now and those sonic spectres all too often relegated the past. Nick 13’s sultry croon has never sounded so on key, pulsating with passion across subtly evolving tempos and rotating cast of instruments. Digging his heels in deep for the sole guitar heavy crunch of opener “Firefall,” Nick 13 proclaims his decade-spanning mission in the forcefully delivered statement, “We’re going to bring back the old ways / That you never knew, but somehow lie within.” In other words, Nick 13 affords the modern listener the liberty to enjoy his sound and embrace a lineage they may not even know.
As a rule, V •••– consists of a handful of basic compositional styles. Those psychobilly stompers like “Firefall” occur sparingly, only resurfacing within dark fiery embers of “Evil Lurks On The Road” to stoke the fire at the album’s midway point. The bulk of the journey unfolds akin to the second track, “Prisoner Of The Night.” With a ghastly aura enhanced under the repetition of crisp piano notes and murky imagery, Nick 13 softly croons his way through the first of many soft tipped expositions. Those like “World Without The Moon” and “Happier Times” infuse steadfast synth and serenading violin with ornately decorative effect.
Then there’s the country twang inherited from Nick 13’s solo work. Subdued in delivery, “Knife’s Edge” thumps to a gallop and then picks up to a trot with trumpets blaring, conjuring images of a wilder time south of the border. Meanwhile, “Train To Eternity” highlights the pedal steel with a vivid country flare. Both are absolute highlights.
Stylistically, Tiger Army takes one particularly large leap of faith with the 50’s drive-in conjuring “Dark And Lonely Night.” Nick 13, hopeless romantic by trade, slowly thumps his double bass through the intersection of love and longing, conjuring emotions on each rhythmic chord. Think a slower version of Hellbound Hepcats and you’d be fairly close. While rather laid-back for Tiger Army, the one-off nature more than suits V •••–.
My only hesitancy for declaring an early victory for Tiger Army rests in a new similarity they share Finnish psychobilly act, The Coffinshakers. An operatic quality, enacted through the heightened wail of a female vocalist, enhances the atmosphere of certain songs. But this bone chilling effect feels a little too familiar in execution to The Coffinshakers’ self titled effort, and lacks the bravado of the former’s execution. It’s a small gripe, and most readers will be asking “coffin who?”, but the psychobilly community is a close knit one, so I’m betting at least a few other will also make the connection.
Overall though, Tiger Army’s return is subtle but triumphant. Existing fans (likely having mellowed with age) will appreciate the nuanced, vintage rockabilly feel fuelling V •••–’s vision, while Nick 13 offers up every reason for the next generation to fall for his magnetic vocal croon and richly thumping psychobilly double bass. Stated differently, V •••– revives Tiger Army from dormancy with ease.