The 1990s were, musically, the decade that began with a bang and ended with a whimper. The dawn of so-called grunge quickly paved the way for all kinds of "underground" music to get radio play and to be on mainstream store shelves. But for whatever reason, compelling music was soon driven back. Partly because these acts continued to grow, leaving behind the sounds they had made trendy (Pearl Jam, anybody?); and partly because the evil powers at major labels poured all their resources into pimping young girls and boys, so as to put pop back on top. "Underground" music resorted back to being niche, but for the occasional breakout act. No one seemed interested in inheriting the best early-to-mid-'90s components of music, and bringing them to the mainstream again.
I can't say for sure that Wickhead, who hail from Johannesburg, South Africa, sought to wear the '90s mantle into the 21st century. They probably didn't. But End Is The Beginning, their first international CD, intrigues me because it shows this is a band who has learned all the right lessons from the decades before them. There's a definite influence of the '90s and even the '80s, but the elements have a modern--rather than derivative--feel.
Lead singer Bronic's voice has more in common with Robert Smith than Rob Halford--mostly lovely while following melodies that could be at home on theater or club stages, while screaming with the best of them. Guitarists Mark Van Heeden's and Randall Knight's thick, chunky riffs are the meat of the music, possessing the listener as soon as they kick in; they're the reason the band gets categorized as "metal," although I would call them "hard rock." The rhythm section (KJ Forde, drums; Jay Hart, bass) balances radio-ready sensibilities with hitting hard, proving themselves with a 6/8 time signature on one song--a more "metal" one at that!
End Is The Beginning is a group of tunes that would be at home both on the mainstream airwaves, or sharing the stage at underground clubs with less commercially viable musicians. Ultimately, what I like about Wickhead is that I could listen to the CD, or go to a show, with friends whose music tastes aren't as divergent as mine, and we'd all enjoy ourselves. IIn a way, Wickhead is a bit like J-rock, a genre in which the heaviest instruments are always countered by sweet, pretty vocals.
"Take Me" is the CD's explosive intro, with rat-a-tat guitars as well as pretty three-part harmonies. "Dirty Pretty Things" has a rolling metal quality that reminded me a bit of the band I Mother Earth. "Bittersweet Farewells" is a great example of Wickhead's skills at channeling broad appeal: It starts unplugged-like, but quickly gets heavy, with a compelling cascading guitar line between the chorus and second verse; lyrics are an homage to leaving home to follow one's dreams (while another song encourage the person whose dreams have gone awry, likely influenced by the band's stay in Los Angeles) . "Sacrifice" is a straight-up modern rock song whose closing bars are reminiscent of Alice And Chains. "Sexita" is a study of contrasts: Pounding metal, pretty vocal harmonies, an uplifting sound despite the disturbing passion of the lyrics. "Everything (Is Just As It Should Be)" deservies mention because of its key change mid-way through one bar, which the band executes flawlessly live. And "Plug" is what I would imagine an upbeat Tool song could be.
One criticism Wickhead might receive is that its music is too divergent. Some might argue that the band doesn't quite know where or what it is. Admittedly, there were a few tunes that immediately made me think: WB! CW! (Or whatever that youth-drama network is called nowadays.) But these complaints might work in the South Africans' favor--perhaps helping nab that commercial licensing deal that could launch them once and for all. I don't see anything wrong with that.
Overall, End Is The Beginning is a solid, compelling, catchy international debut. I think it's one of the best albums not out on a label that's I've heard this year.
(You can buy digital downloads of End Is The Beginning on Snocap, purchase hard copies of the CD from the band directly, or listen to a few tunes at Wickhead's MySpace site, http://www.myspace.com/wickhead; or website, http://www.wickhead.net/.)