As a band The Damned have always had somewhat of a chequered career. For a band that produced the first UK punk single, they always seem to lose out to the Sex Pistols and Clash when the retrospective plaudits for this musical revolution are handed out. A steady turnaround in the bands line up hasn't helped matters and to see their most iconic member (Captain Sensible) score a Number 1 as a solo artist must have galling to say the least.
However, of late their fortunes appear to have been on the up. A sell out 40th celebration at the Royal Albert Hall (review here) and the rejoining of bass player extraordinaire Pau Gray seem to have given the band new impetus. And, a decade after their last CD ("So, Who's Paranoid") they have a brand spanking new release in "Evil Spirits". However, in a move that probably best sums up the history of the band, they have only just finished a tour of Blighty, so ensuring no immediate UK live dates to give the release a sales push.
Bringing in legendary producer Tony Visconti (David Bowie, T Rex) to man the decks for the New York sessions gives the album a crisp and clear feel. Opening with recent single "Standing on the edge of Tomorrow" their current sound seems somewhere between early eighties releases "Black Album" and "Strawberries". However, a nice touch is that the writing credits have been passed around and not retained by the bands power base of Vanian and Sensible. Therefore, drummer Pinch's more rocky number "Devil in Disguise" sits well next to the Captains more melodic and guitar driven "We're So Nice". However most songs, whatever their tempo, make liberal use of Monty Oxymoron's Doors-like keyboards.
Lead singer Dave Vanian is now 61, but clearly his voice has stood the test of time. He easily croons his way through numbers like "Looks Left", a number that interestingly appears to have political overtones, as does penultimate number "Daily Liar". Most songs, including title track "Evil Spirits", showcase the renowned abilities of bass virtuoso Paul Gray, who is a welcome (re)addition to the band. Additionally, the album allows Sensible to highlight what a proficient guitarist he has become, something that's not normally acknowledged when talking about "punk" bands.
Inevitably, being a fan, I tend to equate songs to past glories, so "Shadow Evocation" is somewhat reminiscent of "Curtain Call", their 17 minute opus from the Black Album. Similarly, "Procrastination" has more than a touch of "Lovely Money" and final number "I Don't Care" bears more than a passing resemblance to "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde". However, to a degree, these comparisons are inevitable given that three of the present line recorded those songs nearly four decades ago.
In the many Damned sites on social media the album has been both lauded as a masterpiece and criticised as an abomination. In reality, I think the truth is somewhere in between. Perhaps too many yearned for another balls out punk album such as "Damned, Damned, Damned" or "Machine Gun Etiquette", something that was unlikely ever to happen given their advancing ages. Whilst I'll always equate the band with their halcyon days of the late 70s and early 80s, its good to hear new songs by them. Yes, I would have welcomed the odd three chord thrash, but for a band that's been together for well over 40 years, the ferocity of debate that surrounds the CD speaks volumes for their ability still to be relevant to people of all ages. Long may that continue.