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"Amphetamine Ballads"

Release date: 14 April 2014
The Amazing Snakeheads – Amphetamine Ballads
08 April 2014, 10:30 Written by Joe Goggins

I’ve always found the strange juxtaposition between the popular perception of Glasgow and its best-known musical exports to be quite fascinating. I won’t use the t-word that’s so readily applied to the likes of Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura, but it’s certainly true that their music doesn’t fit with the widely-peddled – and very unfair – idea that the city is an unrelentingly bleak urban wasteland, ravaged by football hooliganism; indeed, it’s difficult to imagine hordes of Rangers fans soundtracking one of their signature rampages with a drunken rendition of “Judy and the Dream of Horses” or “Lloyd, I’m Ready to be Heartbroken”.

There’s the odd exception to that rule, of course; Glasvegas are the obvious one, particularly on their magnificent, socially-conscious debut, but they continue to be treated with mystifying opprobrium by most British critics. Their one-time tourmates The Amazing Snakeheads have approached the Glaswegian stereotype in an altogether more abstract manner; unlike James Allan’s outfit, they’ve made no attempt to tackle broken homes, street stabbings and pub fights head-on, but instead have crafted a deliciously dark sound that conjures up similarly nightmarish urban visions.

The title Amphetamine Ballads is a tad too on-the-nose for my liking, although that’s not to say there’s any lack of aggression here; in fact, it’s the currency that the record most readily trades in. Opener “I’m a Vampire” sets the tone; its sparse, bluesy instrumentation recalls the rawer side of Nick Cave’s output, but it’s Dale Barclay’s vocal approach that represents the band’s calling card; it’s unmistakably Glaswegian, both in terms of the accent and the sense that he’s the kind of guy who would readily beat you to within an inch of your life for looking at him the wrong way. When he declares “I’m gonna take you dancing” in positively deranged fashion on “Nighttime”, it’s a terrifying prospect, but one you wouldn’t dare decline for fear that he might eat you alive. He might well be a vampire. There’s certainly no lack of conviction in his voice.

The Snakeheads feel like the heirs apparent to the sadly-defunct Wet Nuns, who split last year just as they were beginning to establish themselves; bands like these make it clear how genuinely scandalous it is that the likes of The Black Keys are labelled with the ‘blues-rock’ tag. The two thematic undercurrents running through Amphetamine Ballads are danger and sleaze; “Where Is My Knife?” simmers with implied menace, an ominous drumbeat keeping things taut, whilst “Every Guy Wants to Be Her Baby”, with its wandering saxophone, would fit neatly into David Lynch’s next film if he chose to shoot it in Glasgow.

There’s instances, too, in which proceedings are dragged out at the expense of tension; “Flatlining”’s noisy interludes are messy and overcrowded, and the strange inclusion of harmonica suggests that the band are still exploring, still a little way off figuring out what comprises their strongest sonic palette. “Heading for Heartbreak”, too, is deliberately sparse, with the intention being for Barclay to carry the track, but it shows him up to be a little one-dimensional – there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground for him between ‘threatening growl’ and ‘unhinged howl’.

Amphetamine Ballads probably shouldn’t feel like quite so much of a breath of fresh air – there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that it wears its influences (or has them tattooed, probably) very much on its sleeve – but it carries a threatening urgency so often conspicuous by its absence nowadays. The Amazing Snakeheads are atypical of their hometown’s recent musical history – suffice to say I can’t imagine them donning the new Scotland away kit – but they’re by no means an unwelcome addition to an already thriving scene.

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