I still remember the first time I listened to Gwar. It was back in my college radio days at WVUD in Newark, DE. A college radio station with a fairly powerful broadcast signal. We got tons of promos each week from all of the record labels and had amassed an extremely large library of both LPs and CDs. I was thumbing through the G section before my show one night and that's where I first discovered this one record that looked like no others. It was Scumdogs of the Universe by Gwar. It featured these part-human, part-nighmarish muppet characters on the cover. I turned the record over and I looked at the songs… "Sick of You," "Sexecutioner," and "Love Surgery." Against my better judgement, I played the first track off the record on the air without previewing it first. It was "The Salaminzer." It was also the last time I played a song without previewing it first as I was deathly afraid that the FCC was going to pull my license given that particular song contains about half the words the FCC specifically banned over the air. Of course, the FCC was one of the many reasons why Gwar never really got the airplay they deserved. The reality is while Gwar is an acquired taste for some, the band writes really catchy songs and adds much needed brevity to a scene that sometimes takes itself too seriously.
The New Dark Ages is an all-too-appropriate title for this newest release it follows in a long line of LP titles critical of the current state of the world. (My personal favorite is still 1994's This Toilet Earth.) Gwar has never stopped their criticisms of society, politics and its people and they fear no cancellation. In fact, as some might remember, Gwar were targets of a myriad of pro-censorship groups like the infamous PMRC led by none other than (then Senator) Al Gore's spouse, Tipper. On their most recent tour last year Gwar opened it by decapitating none other than President Joe Biden. Of course, don't consider Gwar partisan as they've been known to poke fun at the likes of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump , George W. Bush and even (gasp!) Barack Obama!
The first single of the new record is an absolute banger and one of the catchiest tunes in a while. "Mother Fucking Liar" is Gwar at their best. The lyrics are totally Gwar and the song itself can easily fit on a variety of earlier records. They don't try and do too much with this particular song – there is no horn section, no overproduction. It's just a straight-ahead rocker and there are a bunch of those on this record including "Bored to Death" and the first two cuts "New Dark Age" and "Blood Libel." Gwar often excels when they let themselves stick to the basics of songwriting. No unnecessary layers and samples only where it really fits to the keep the composition together. No need to have all the instruments going at all times. "Blood Libel" particularly exemplifies this. It's one of the best songs on the record and it's because the band isn't afraid to rests here and there with the guitars. It gives the track texture with the prevalence of subtraction over addition.
"Starving Gods," on the other hand is something really new. It starts with a little touch of Blackie Lawless in the vocal. This then really gets going into a rather groovy song with some slappin' bass to blow out your subwoofer. This track blends so much so well. Whether it's the danceable beat, the novel percussive elements in addition to the drums or the Flea-like bass riff about 2:30 minutes into it. When Gwar brings the groove, they really seem to excel. Of course, it will be hard to top 2009's Let Us Slay in terms of getting the folks in the pit to dance – but there's a similar feeling here.
Everyone, inevitably, will be talking about the vocals here and the fact that Michael Bishop now helms the band as frontman, Blothar. We all know there's no replacing Dave Brockie. No one sounds like Brockie or will ever come close to his delivery. Brockie is beyond legendary. But with that, I also really appreciate Bishop's singing here. He's great on thrashers like "Berserker Mode" and it feels like he really comes into his own on this new record with songs that match his particular style. We heard that vocal development a bit with "Fuck This Place" off 2018's Blood of the Gods and I'd say he's gotten more comfortable with his voice on The New Dark Ages. I'd point to tracks like "Ratcatcher" and "The Cutter" as examples of where the vocals really fire on all cylinders here and you should really give them a listen.
If there's a downside to this record I'd have to see it runs about 3 songs too long. The final three tracks on the record don't work for me and they seem a bit extraneous given that there are easily 12 rock solid songs prior to those three. The album's closer "Deus Ex Monstrum" is a 10 plus minute atmospheric piece which is okay, I guess, if that's what you're really looking for but I'm not sure why it's actually there. Of course, the positives really outweigh the few negatives by a longshot and surprises like the slow but heavy "Rise Again" and the really fun thrasher "Berserker Mode" will quickly and easily draw you in.
Almost 30 years after I first discovered Gwar, even with its noted tragedies, lineup changes, and controversies, the core elements of this band have never really changed. They still have that groove courtesy of a fantastic rhythm section and they still write a really catchy song that you can't help but sing along with – provided you aren't trying to impress anyone around you. The New Dark Ages is a solid record and I might even say I enjoy it a bit more than a number of their prior releases including Blood of the Gods, which was just a bit too bluesy for me. This latest record finds our favorite scumdogs going back to the early 90's a bit – back to their sweetspot – and this is the primary reason why this LP works as well as it does.