It seems that The Duke Spirit drop out of sight for just long enough between albums that the music world tends to negligently forget about them, only to rediscover their brilliance anew with each subsequent release. After letting another three years lapse since the vastly underrated Neptune, the London quintet are back with Bruiser, a taut, tense album full of theatrical, moody numbers that, while noticeably toning down the fuzz and distortion featured throughout their first two records, doesn’t sacrifice any of the fresh urgency of their earlier work, it just conveys that untethered spirit in a more refined manner.
The gritty, garage-rock fury that pulsed through The Duke Spirit’s feisty debut is exchanged for a more polished, focused sound on Bruiser, with celebrated L.A. producer Andrew Scheps injecting this new batch of songs with rich, lush tones that represents a subtle but distinct change in direction for the group. The band is once again led by the unbridled intensity of lead singer Liela Moss’ fiery vocals, but even she shifts to a more mercurial, understated delivery when the moment calls for it (such as on the piano-laden dirge of ‘Villain,’ or the haunting chill of ‘De Lux’).
Bruiser represents the Duke Spirit’s first album recorded after longtime guitarist Dan Higgins left the band. And while it would be understandable if things were toned down a bit while the group adjusted to their new line-up, the fact that everyone currently in the band toured together extensively following Higgins’ departure only adds to the album’s cohesive, natural sound. And make no mistake, no matter how restrained some of these songs appear, guitarists Luke Ford and Toby Butler (who switched over from bass) still play a crucial role in defining the direction of the band’s volatile sound. It’s just that their riffs are far more concise and subdued on these new tracks, smoldering and slow-burning rather than exploding with a youthful fury.
And the moody crunch of opener ‘Cherry Tree’ attests perfectly to that newfound tonal adjustment. The track starts with Marc Sallis’ brooding bass line amid the churning drums of Olly Betts before the guitars are eventually unleashed in a wild fury at the finish, after the relentless tension built up by the beginning of the song finally comes to a full-boil. From there the album continues down a more downbeat, ominous path, as the glowering intensity and seductive pulse of ‘Procession’ finds the band displaying a bold, confident swagger that imbues the song with a fresh vibrancy. But the album quickly takes one of its many stylistic detours on ‘Villain,’ as the band dials down the potency in favor of something far more regal and atmospheric.
Betts is the driving force behind the rhythmic, hypnotic ‘Don’t Wait,’ before the dual-guitars join in the fray halfway through the track, while Ford and Butler take the lead on the churning desperation of ‘Surrender.’ ‘Bodies’ takes a while to hit its stride, but after an entrancing breakdown, it switches into a high gear and eventually soars. ‘De Lux’ is a lovely, exploratory number, with the plinks of a ghostly piano only adding to the track’s mournful nature. It’s ultimately quite gratifying to hear the band confident enough to tackle such a different sound, a move that wouldn’t have worked nearly as well on their previous albums, and that adventurous spirit continues on the slow-burning, bluesy stomp of ‘Sweet Bitter Sweet.’
The album closes out strongly with two songs featured on the Kusama EP: the agitated, Heart-like ‘Everybody’s Under Your Spell,’ and the smoldering ‘Northbound.’ The former track boasts raw, untamed guitars that are reminiscent of the grittier moments of In Utero, while the latter number is a deep, wistful piece that forms a nice segue into ‘Homecoming,’ the triumphant final track that ends the album with a warm, somber plea filled with longing and desire. It elegantly brings to a close an album that simply pulses with the self-assurance of a band that knew exactly what sound they were after on this record, and got as close as they could to capturing it.