Most bands claim—and hope—that each new record is a step forward. Kevin Starrs, songwriter and thematic mastermind of England’s Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats, is no different, declaring the band’s fifth album, Wasteland—released on Oct. 12, again on Rise Above Records—to be “a progression. An evolution.”
Starrs is not bold or bragging in his statement. It’s just a fact that each Uncle Acid LP is a new wonderful, fantastical story bathed in conceptual narrative arcs and illustrated cohesion. This time, listeners are ushered into remnants of fleeing slaves exploited and manipulated in the dystopian Wasteland. Starrs reassures that nothing is rehashed here. “Every album set in a different environment,” he says, “an entirely new concept.”
Starrs’ music reflects this trek, contrasting vastly with Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats’ prior outing, 2015’s The Night Creeper. He says the band “approached tempos totally different” on Wasteland and that “The Night Creeper was a linear concept, [a] long, drawn-out night of terror—long and steady. This album, the tempo is quicker. Time is running out for these people, so the tempo has to be faster.” This is exemplified in the back-to-back hammers of “Blood Runner” and “Stranger Tonight,” tracks that burst with fast-paced riffs and swirling atmospheres.
Basking in ’70s and ’80s 8-bit sci-fi splendor, in the jarring vein of “The Road Warrior” or “Logan’s Run,” the soundtrack is the epitome of desperation and confusion, soaked in chaotic reverb. The doom and psych-stoner ravaging on the pounding, thunderous flow of nine-minute song “No Return” contrasts with other tracks, which are shorter and tease splashes of NWOBHM.
To reflect the sensory blanket of the story’s misery, Starrs made the album’s tracking purposefully disjointed, unlike The Night Creeper. “Songs are fragments, like discarded memory disk, so a lot of it doesn’t appear to follow a story,” he explains, “but it all revolves around this one place.”
Starrs elaborates on the complete picture of the tale woven into wax on Wasteland, citing a “heavily surveilled city environment that’s been completely destroyed. Everyone lives in fear; they can’t get out. Everyone is a slave to these technologies with screens, propaganda—horrible, miserable environment—but the idea is people can escape and go away to the wider wasteland. These are these blood runners, mercenaries. [They’re] looking to open up your skull, wipe your memory, leave you like the living dead. Let’s think of all these chaotic scenes I could write about.”
The process sounds engaging and, frankly, exciting to forge and witness manifesting. Starrs laughs, “It is fun. It is enjoyable, even though the subject matter is depressing.”
The current climate of technology’s exponential growth and prevalence finds it nesting into every facet of society’s needs and impulses. Starrs admits the parallels Wasteland has to the real world, especially in the U.K. with CCTV. He concedes that this story could serve as a warning, but mostly, it is a fun story that is conceivably a destiny—or destination—of the next generation’s feeding their indulgences. “There are parallels to things going on, as I see people being a slave to technology,” he acknowledges. “Just go outside and look at people: their heads are buried into their screen, and [they] can’t even function without it.”
The parable bends to a sadder, more relevant and personal reality. “Just go to our shows. People are looking at us—the band playing—through their screens,” Starrs continues with a disappointed and glum exhalation. “It creates this strange barrier where you can’t connect to one another. We’re trying to put on a show, feeding off the audience, where they should be feeding off of us. There’s a disconnect between people because they’re mesmerized by this screen in front of them.” To many older music fans, this nearly ubiquitous phenomenon of attending a show only to engage with the band by peering through a four-inch viewfinder is odd and seems like missing the point.
The few years since The Night Creeper was released saw Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats expand their footprint. They were able to tour the U.S. twice and even get down to Australia—Starrs notes, “They love good headbanging music.” As their sound permeated and seductively lured in new fans across the stupefied globe, Starrs was formulating new riffs and storylines for Wasteland. After sending demos to the other band members, rhythm guitarist Vaughn Stokes, bassist Justin Smith—who has taken over bass duties from Stokes for live sets—and new drummer Jon Rice, the band then flew to sunny Los Angeles from their northeast of London home of Cambridge to team with engineer Geoff Neal. Neal has captured rougher sounds with Motörhead and Metallica but has also wrangled knobs for a varied list which includes The Black Keys, Nine Inch Nails, the elegant Madeleine Peyroux, and more.
The studio, Sunset Sound L.A., sure did establish the stark dichotomy with Cambridge. “Funny to see all the old rock stars that have moved there—Ozzy, Geezer [Butler], Jeff Lynne,” Starrs says. “It’s a totally different environment.” Reframed from the damp, grey still of his home, Starrs enjoys seeing friends and some parts of L.A., but he was ready to focus on work.
Wasteland was captured with vivacious energy and stinging precision as the band got down. The album was recorded “all in one room, straight to tape,” Starrs explains. “All live. No messing around.” Not including overdubs and some tweaks, the quick process pulsated with energy. “Four days to track the whole album, the meat of the album,” he says. Regarding the dusty analog process, Starrs and the boys had no hesitation. “Tape definitely adds an extra 10 percent to the feel of an album,” he notes. “That’s the way it should be if you’re in a rock band: playing it live, being in the same room, feeding off of each other.” As far as working with their new drummer, Rice, Starrs states plainly, “I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always played with great musicians. It came out really great.”
Wasteland is packed with gems, tapping into an insecurity and pensive vibe. “Shockwave City” rocks hard, driving a crisp NWOBHM riff steady at four minutes. The breakdown is pounding, reasserting a galloping guitar dominance. That second track is followed by the nine-minute “No Return,” as Uncle Acid seem unafraid to play with dynamics within songs and in the context of the album. The last third of the LP is begun by the title track: a creepy psych-rock whisper of acoustic guitars, layered with filtered vocals and chants. Welcoming additional strings and piano, the seven-minute track splits in the middle and rides a doom storm of dark atmosphere and heavy riffs. “Bedouin” and “Exodus” close out Wasteland drenched in reverb and delay, lapping at the listener in lysergic sonic waves. Winding guitars and synths and lasers wander and dance and beckon in a cavalcade of rock dream soundtracks, signaling the final exit of the story’s protagonists.
For someone who creates these involved, complex arcs, Starrs comes across as quiet and unassuming. Even the band’s breakout 2011 album, Blood Lust, impressed fans and critics with its reverent writing and ideas and its authenticity. Starrs and crew were not jumping a bandwagon, despite the meteoric rise of the psych, stoner, and doom genres. All of Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats’ albums are admired and beloved, but Starrs is frank and short with his opinion on the response. “I would like to think the melodies and the harmonies mixed in with that heavier stuff [is what is attractive],” he says. “It is not done as much. We’ve got the harmony voices going through each song, and the songs are quite catchy, so audiences like it. We get thrown in with those bands, but I like to think of us as just a rock band. People need to place you in a niche. To me, we’re just a hard rock band; no need to break it down further into anything else.”
Starrs is enveloped in constant inspiration. “Going to see bands live, CDs, vinyl, whatever—all I spend my money on is music,” he shares. When asked if he spends the majority of his time in his own head, he replies, “Exactly. If friends’ bands come through London, I will go see them, but for the most part, I don’t socialize with others. I am pretty much a recluse. I can be in the room [with others] and not really be there. So, why bother?”
In this age of so many film and video platforms and such rapid absorption of content—especially sci-fi—the question becomes if Starrs has ever tried to infuse these ideas into a screenplay or novel. “Not really, but the idea has crossed my mind,” he admits. “One day, maybe. Make it a cheap paperback and sell it on tours. People might enjoy it even if it is really terrible.” He underestimates his imagination and impact—these stories could be fully fleshed-out movies.
For showcasing these brilliant tunes live, Desert Daze was blessed first. Held in Joshua Tree, California, in mid-October, Desert Daze was three days loaded with bands including Ex-Cult, Shannon And The Clams, Here Lies Man, Chelsea Wolfe, and more. Starrs contrasts this opportunity with England’s fest landscape, asserting, “We would never get near that sort of bill. That bill would never happen in Europe, where bands sound completely different. It is such a good, eclectic group of bands.” Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats played Friday, but Starrs was especially excited to hear the spoken word of the West Memphis Three’s Damien Echols and to see friends—including L.A. Witch, who will accompany the band on their November and December tour of Europe. To kick off the new year, the rarely-touring Blood Ceremony will join Uncle Acid to tour the U.K. in January of 2019, then they will most likely undertake another U.S. tour in the spring.