Dee Calhoun, aka Screaming Mad Dee, is without a doubt best known for currently fronting US Doom, with a capital “D”, stalwarts Iron Man, a band that should be essential listening for any worshipper of the down tuned riff. However, his career has spanned far more than the six years he’s been lending his vocals to that band, and for his first solo release ‘Rotgut’ he has moved away from fuzz spewing bass cabinets and march of the damned drum beats and headed into the studio armed with little more than an acoustic guitar and a massive pile of raw talent.
‘Unapologetic’ opens the album and sets the tone for the whole release, owing far more to the gritty folk protest of Neil Young than to the hellish releases of Black Sabbath, delivering more darkness and atmosphere than any number of gutturally growling zombies. With the a sparingly used addition of a mournful slide guitar title track ‘Rotgut’ travels down a more country route, but rather than being the commercialised country of a gun-slinging cowboy West that never existed outside of Nashville and John Ford movies, it is the realistic sound of the blue collar man who has seen agriculture give way to industry and then to depression, both economic and spiritual, an emptiness that all the whiskey in the world cannot fill. Whilst ‘Not Everyone Wins a Prize’ continues the dark journey, telling an all too downbeat tale of the reality of a working musician, not all is despair; ‘Little Houn Daddy Houn’ is an ode to his son that plays with the child like simplicity and unconditional love of ‘Puff The Magic Dragon’ (remember, it was a folk song long before it became a children’s TV staple people), and I defy even the most grimm and kvlt to listen to it without a tear washing a clean line through their corpse paint.
This gentle lightness cannot last, and soon the darkness draws in with the plaintive ‘Babelkowa’ and then ‘Backstabbed in Backwater’, a number that owes its lyrical genesis of whoring and betrayal to the likes of Tom Waits, but without the guttural growl of a voice destroyed by a seemingly exclusive diet of unfiltered cigarettes and bourbon. Indeed, Calhoun’s voice is anything but ruined, rather it is a highly tuned instrument in itself, the cleanness, range, and sustain he displays through the likes of ‘The Train Back Home’, and indeed each of the thirteen tracks on the album, the short and stark instrumental ‘Deifendor’ aside, being something that few vocalists could match, and many would rightly envy. Indeed, ‘Winter A Dirge’ has barely any instruments at all, just a howling wind providing the majority of the accompaniment to lyrics that are equally bleak and wind blasted.
Whilst a new Iron Man album is eagerly awaited, on ‘Rotgut’ Dee Calhoun has admirably displayed his range of abilities and influences, much as fellow Doom legend Wino has in his recent collaborations with Cony Ochs. This is an album of a masterful musician who is comfortable in not being pigeon-holed into one style or sub-genre, and is instead willing to present an album that eschews unnecessary pyrotechnics and studio tricks, creating instead a heart felt sound that could be perfectly recreated by just the man and a lone guitar. Ave Noctum is your source for music that is not just extreme, but atmospheric, and Dee Calhoun provides that aplenty with this LP.