Royal Headache 'Royal Headache'
Who's saying what
A member of Royal Headache once railed during an interview in Mountainfold journal, that the darkness pervasive in Sydney’s underground scene throughout the ‘00s was “bleak”, “esoteric shit”. Bleak is mostly correct. There was the perennial hardcore punk crowd, the St Kilda-in-the-‘70s aping groups who regularly played the eastern 'burbs, as well as bands like Naked on the Vague and Castings, who plumbed more maudlin and dreaded depths in warehouses. It’s not true that people weren’t having fun. But certainly, they were having fun to the tune of some pretty dour music.
Sydney’s scene has since abandoned many of the sounds and inclinations that made it so weird and forbidding between 2000 and 2009. It’s pretty much just a party city now. A party city with few venues and an arena called “Allphones”. Likewise, the worldwide re-emergence of garage punk (and every other variety of punk and proto-punk you could name) has fostered a scene where intent often trumps ability, and where disaffection too often sounds ironically “channeled” rather than keenly felt. The resulting problem is that most modern underground punk acts look and sound, not only like one another, but also like their parents. They probably live with them too.
Royal Headache emerged right at the crest of this punk retro fetish and are commonly associated with it. This association needs to stop. There's Royal Headache, then there's everybody else. Of all the current lo-fi punk groups singing about shitting themselves on a bender, or sleeping on rolled up carpet somewhere in the Brisbane wastes, Royal Headache stand out because they never scan as aloof: their music isn’t just an exercise in revision or emulation, even while its separate components are all very familiar. In fact, the group is more reminiscent of Cold Chisel than any of the designedly crap-sounding punk antecedents you could name. And while they may be pushing against darkness, theirs is still a complicated fun; this album is unexpectedly sad at times.
Part of this sadness comes from the trebly AM quality that coats frontman Shogun’s voice; a nostalgic warmth that compliments his straight-from-the-gut vocals. Without any sort of low end it sounds unanchored, fleeting -- like a blast of unfiltered sincerity from the past. It’s true that these melancholic qualities of Royal Headache’s sound are cosmetic — give them a proper, modern treatment and the ghostly AM patina would fade — but fidelity shouldn’t be the talking point here, nor should the more profound aspects of their work be dwelled on. Royal Headache are a fast, catchy, energetic punk group, with a big heart.
These songs have commonplace themes but avoid marching out old fashions and stereotypes, a trait largely attributed to the way Shogun’s voice never backs down from its duty to communicate. When he’s anguished, such as during ‘Really in Love’, every note manifests what his written words alone cannot: confusion, indignation, excitement. ‘Psychotic Episode’ is one of his most straightforward, least flamboyant vocal performances, but it still provides precisely what the song needs.
It’s this soulful, sentimental edge that makes the band so appealing, but it’s the sincerity that makes Royal Headache important to people. They're a real rock band in the traditional sense then. But unlike revivalists like the Hold Steady — who rely on preserving some mythology of rock and bad beat poetry to keep their deflating zeppelin afloat — Royal Headache simply do it without suggesting it's a heritage that needs to preserved. They keep it simple, and in doing so evoke feelings that have been buried in the crypts of underground punk’s no-go areas for too long. Unlike other groups with a bout of the revival virus, they show rather than tell.
The record isn't perfect: the two featured instrumentals are odd, dreary excursions that break the pace. But crucially, what Royal Headache do here would actually be intolerable had they not got it right. And that’s exactly what makes them special: there's something at stake. Which means they're among the very few punk groups that are actually worth listening to in 2011. Your dad might like it, but in this instance we'll let that slide.
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