Rewind to 2008. 20 year old me had become a sizeable fan of Volbeat over the past year. Their two albums had a great heavy rock ‘n roll sound, with Michael Poulsen’s Elvis croon the shining spotlight. At the time I called their performance in front of 500 people one of my top shows ever. I liked them so much that when circumstances arose that required me to adopt a new internet handle, I picked my favorite song of theirs, a handle which I still sport to this day. But when I spun their new album, Guitar Gangsters & Cadillac Blood, I just felt… nothing. Sure, “Still Counting” had some fun lines, but where was the heaviness? The slick, booming licks? The fucking passion, man? My love for the band withered on the vine, while Volbeat went on to double-platinum records and headlining shows for tens of thousands of people. It wasn’t until later that I realized that this is what fans felt like when a band, in their perception, become sellouts.
West End reminds me of that disappointing first spin of Guitar Gangsters. I’d picked up The 69 Eyes’ new album on a whim, thinking the name sounded familiar, with good reason. With multiple platinum records under their arms from the 00’s, the glam-turned-goth collective has been active since the early 90’s. One might assume they intended to be a Sisters of Mercy that actually releases new music. That lengthy career path is evident in some of the stronger tracks. Lead single “Cheyenna” is easily the best of the bunch, carried entirely on the shoulders of an addictive lead guitar lick. All the tracks are built around the choruses, and there’s absolutely a few sweet ones in the mix, like the fun “Burn Witch Burn” and the darkly romantic “Black Orchid.” Perhaps the most overall impressive track is closer “Hell Has No Mercy” which sustains itself on the precise application of three chords and achieves a bluesy melancholy in the process.
But by and large, West End reeks of extrinsic motivation. With few exceptions, it feels like a ticking of boxes of goth rock anthems, without the passion or depth to back it up. The focus on the choruses means half of each song is absent-minded chuggery, and despite being the focal point, not nearly all the choruses hit the mark. You can only hear Jyrki croon ‘cha-ha-ha-ha-hange’ so often before your eyes roll out of your skull. “Two Horns Up” and “Last House on the Left” have so many vocal layers they just become a murk that’s hard to focus on, despite the transparent attempt at creating fist-pumping crowd pleasers. The most galling Hot Topic pandering comes from hearing a 50 year old man sing ‘let’s all die young / it’s so easy and fun / 27 and you’re done’ without a shred of self-reflection, though, and it makes it hard to remember that there’s a few tracks on West End that are genuinely fun to listen to.
These issues wouldn’t be as big as they are if there was more passion in the music, but the spark of emotion rarely sets a fire. Jyrki himself seems more preoccupied with fitting into the mold of a pop Peter Steele than emoting in his vocal lines, and with the vocals so forward in the mix this can hardly be called a minor issue. The majority of riffs and leads are rather dull and dour, with the exceptions noted above. The production is similarly clinical, with little personality to particular elements like the guitar sound. The bass has a nice presence in the mix, adding a little extra depth, but the vocals are mixed predictably up-front, since they’re supposed to set the band apart from the rest of whatever Top Something list the band hopes to land themselves on.
It’s a shrill contrast to that other Sisters of Mercy offspring that came out this year. I still listen to Idle Hands every week and Mana set up camp in the upper regions of my end-of-year assessments with its infectious sense of melody and sincerity. And therein lies the crux with West End. Nothing about it feels sincere and heartfelt, passionate and true. It’s a collection of pandering tracks designed to sell, aiming for broad appeal and superficiality rather than anything approaching emotional engagement. There are still a few fun ditties scattered across the album, and the stylistic freedom of the closer brushes against the idea of artistic truth and integrity. But I like these tracks only begrudgingly, as they are testament to the fact that The 69 Eyes can do better than this. They just don’t want to risk sales over artistry. And that’s the heart of what it means for a band to be sellouts.