400 Blows review
Dropping one of the standard stringed instruments from the typical rock combo seems to be all the rage these days. From bassless garage rock duos and trios like the Black Keys and the Coachwhips to more experimental groups like Hella and Lightning Bolt, it seems like you can’t turn around anymore without running across some hot new act who’ve pared the amount of stringed instruments in their band down from the typical two or three to only one. And I’m sure it’s a matter of personal taste for everyone, but for me, it’s generally the ones that drop the six-string guitars and forge ahead with only a bass who impress me the most. There’s just something about the more rhythm-oriented nature of this particular configuration of instruments that acts as an automatic bullshit reducer, eviscerating all tendencies towards wankery and forcing bands to trim their sound down to the most bare-bones riffing possible.
400 Blows is yet another of these stripped-down ensembles, and with stringed-instrument player Christian Wabschall opting for guitar rather than bass, I went into things expecting holes in the bottom end of their sound instead of solid rhythmic pounding. Well, I don’t know if it’s Wabschall’s amp, or his distortion pedal, or some other component of his equipment that I don’t understand, but the sound he manages to get out of a guitar is easily as thick as what he could get out of a bass, and in fact I’d go so far as to say that this may be the heaviest I’ve ever heard one of these one stringed instrument bands get.
This heaviness is reflected in their singlemindedness of purpose where songwriting is concerned. “Angel’s Trumpets and Devil’s Trombones” is their second album, but there’s no attempt at expansion on their sound, which focuses on propulsive, midtempo proto-metal riffs of the sort that were popular at the dawn of the 1970s. Back when Led Zeppelin were creating the albums that are critically heralded now as the birth of heavy metal, there were a whole bunch of lesser-known bands operating in the same territory, often with far less instrumental skill. This led these groups (Blue Cheer being the most famous, among others such as Cactus, Black Oak Arkansas, and Bloodrock) to avoid instrumental pyrotechnics in favor of finding a groove and sticking with it. They may not have wowed the critics with their guitar heroics, but they sure did rock, and that’s the important thing as far as I’m concerned.
400 Blows seem to agree with me on this one. While vocalist Skot Alexander trades the blues howling of 70s proto-metal boogie bands for a snotty punk-influenced snarl, the music here is all about the rock, in a way that few bands since that era have been. They don’t worry too much about dynamics or tempo changes; the songs chug along at a foot-stomping pace for the most part. When they do decide to break things down, as in the end of “The Secret Life”, it creates a powerful effect as much because of the surprise of the tempo change as from the heaviness of the riff itself. In their quieter moments, which tend to be the only time that the listener can really be certain that Wabschall is indeed playing a guitar and not a bass, 400 Blows can even sound a bit like an emotionally-driven bar rock band like Thin Lizzy or The Faces. However, these moments are brief, and as soon as they can be, they’re back to pounding you over the head.
This is the kind of music that sounds best coming through the speakers of a souped-up muscle car from 35 or so years ago, blasting at top volume as you fly down country roads at speeds considerably higher than the limit. 400 Blows are masters of these kinds of heavy grooves, which mostly exist on records that are now out of print. Next time they come through town, you can expect me to be there. I’ll be the guy up front with long hair, pumping my fist in the air and banging my head.