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Mark Sultan


[Last Gang; 2010]

By ; April 29, 2010 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

You can’t be a real garage rocker if you’re not standing at the center of a confusing maze of side-projects, alter-egos and limited pressing split 7″ records with one-shot bands. With credits to the Spaceshits, Les Sexareenos, BBQ, the Almighty Defenders and others, Mark Sultan definitely makes the grade. But Mark Sultan is no run-of-the-mill lo-fi hack: his albums as one-man band BBQ and with fellow garage-soul wild man King Khan are among my favourite rock releases of the last decade. Yet recently he’s seemed stuck in something of a rut. His first album under his real(?) name of Mark Sultan hinted at untapped potential, particularly on closing track “Unicorn Rainbow Odyssey,” but never really took it far enough. And while last year’s Invisible Girl with King Khan was fun, it felt like it was time to switch things up.

Thankfully, it’s immediate right from the opening moments of bizarrely titled album $ that Sultan’s ready to let his freak flag fly. “Icicles” opens with mechanical strum and guitar scree before this chilly solo cuts through the middle of it. Three minutes in and the drums are thudding underneath a buzzing drone, the clockwork tempo cranking up and his vocals finally come in. There are echoes of Barret-era Floyd, or Thirteenth Floor Elevators if you confiscated their jug. It culminates in a frazzled guitar solo before collapsing a full six and a half minutes after it began. It’s a dramatic, attention-grabbing opener that kicks up a gear into “Don’t Look Back,” taking the more traditional Sultan sound and cranking it up over rattling junkyard percussion. The solo band sound is well and truly ditched, especially when the track erupts into a full-on wigout halfway through.

Don’t be too afraid; he hasn’t gone and completely reinvented himself. This is still recognisably Mark Sultan / BBQ, and that’s a good thing. He’s a fantastic songwriter and has this great ragged soul-shouter voice, but this time the songs are wilder and messier, pushed to the edge and beyond. “Ten of Hearts” does that early soul ballad thing he can nail like few others these days, but there’s this fat psychedelic guitar line winding through it and it climaxes amongst this tangle of atonal strings. “Misery’s Upon Us” might boast a typically catchy Sultan melody, but it’s given this eerie tension by the keening guitar buried under the verses, only to give a much needed release with a burbling synth melody in the chorus. “Nobody But You” closes the record the way it began, with strung-out psych, yet this time it ebbs and flows, closing its eyes and drifting into the distance as Sultan promises “I don’t want nobody else but you.” The guitar scrawls around the edges and the Thirteen Floor Elevators have brought the jug back out of the cupboard and it’s all one long blissful comedown.

Despite the experimentation, the album doesn’t feel like he’s getting self-consciously weird. When it suits the song, he’s still happy to let it breathe. “I Get Nothin’ From My Girl” is a relatively straightforward country-tinged number with backing vocals and a whistling solo. “Go Berserk” and “I’ll Be Lovin’ You” nudge his garage-soul template in the direction of Chuck Berry, but don’t do too much to dismantle it in the workshop, preferring to just rock the fuck out (when everything drops out in “I’ll Be Lovin’ You” and then roars back in with a cry of “baby, I can see the blue moon in your eyes” it’s just magic).

Centerpiece “I am the End” is a particular standout. It opens with Sultan and almost no accompaniment aside from the occasional flurry of music box notes and instrumental hum. The focus is squarely on his vocal, which is absolutely amazing. There are shades of Otis Redding standing on stage at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go, sweat dripping down his face. When it shifts into this wracked, clouds-of-doom soul, it’s spine-chilling, and the feedback clouds that drift into the middle of it only make it more otherworldly. Truly one of Sultan’s very best songs and the most emotionally affecting thing I’ve heard from him. It’s the best song here, but there’s plenty of competition; it’s a set of great, catchy tracks and the more chaotic, varied production only serves to make them feel more vital. And while it’s long for a Sultan album (stretching out for nearly fifty minutes!), it never feels bloated. In fact, when it ends, the most natural thing to do is to play it again.

It can be a risky move in the often insular world of garage rock to pull out a stylistic shift like Sultan has here. There will no doubt be those who bemoan his new musical excesses. However, on this evidence, Sultan should cut loose more often. And besides, there are always side-projects where he can kick around his regular stomping grounds, like the upcoming Ding-Dongs album with Buckshot Bill on Norton. $ marks something new for Sultan, and it’s something truly special.


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