It’s often a dicey proposition when a revered band regroups to make a new album after having been dormant: there’s just no telling whether the musicians still share the creative spark that made them revered in the first place. There was an undercurrent of trepidation, then, accompanying the exciting news that the Afghan Whigs were readying their first new LP since 1998.
It took a few more years for the band to wind down in 2001, before reuniting in 2012 for a tour that spilled into the following year, when the group played a show at South by Southwest that included a surprise appearance from Usher. That gig essentially inspired Greg Dulli and company to start work on Do to the Beast, the Afghan Whigs’ first studio release in 16 years. It’s a terrifying album, in the best way possible, full of roiling emotions on tough, riveting songs.
Purists are wringing their hands over the absence of guitarist Rick McCollum, who wasn’t invited to participate (and has said he’s dealing with personal issues), but Dulli had no shortage of six-string collaborators on these 10 songs. Along with current Afghan Whigs guitarists Dave Rosser and Jon Skibic, Do to the Beast includes contributions from Mark McGuire, Alain Johannes from Queens of the Stone Age and Johnny “Natural” Najera, who is Usher’s musical director. (Soul shouter Van Hunt, Joseph Arthur and members of the Raconteurs and Squirrel Bait also appear.)
Together, they account for perhaps the most stylistically varied album in the Afghan Whigs’ catalog, ranging from the taut girl-group beat of “Algiers” to the bruising, thunderous guitars of opener “Parked Outside” to the moody atmospherics of “Can Rova.” Through it all, Dulli roams a turbulent psychic landscape as he dreams up a bleak revenge scenario on the brooding “These Sticks,” glowers under seething guitars and rifle-shot drums on “Matamoros” and sounds wistfully reflective as he imagines addressing his younger self from his deathbed on “Lost in the Woods,” the epic centerpiece of the album. Dulli built the song from fragments of two different ideas, and the track builds from a slow, swaying piano vamp into a soaring blend of guitar and strings that left the singer’s yearning vocals.
Dulli has said he was very much conscious of the Afghan Whigs’ legacy while making Do to the Beast, but added that he “refused to be imprisoned by it.” The result is a combustible album that doesn’t seek to recapture the band’s old spark so much as light a new one.