Royal Headache – High

For an album that almost didn’t happen, High doesn’t feel like a mere post-script to Royal Headache’s uncertain career says DOUG WALLEN.

The Sydney quartet’s own gangly, animated, straight-talking frontman – known simply as Shogun – may have called time on the band last year, but Royal Headache are officially back in business and touring the hell out of the US as we speak. Three years after their self-titled debut LP became one of 2011’s biggest breakthroughs in Australian music, Royal Headache have earned more attention in the past year for Shogun’s protracted recording of this album’s vocal takes and a headline-making stage invasion of fans (then police) at the Sydney Opera House.

But most of that context falls by the wayside when we finally hear High in full. In just under half an hour, these 10 songs re-establish both Royal Headache’s breakneck melodicism and Shogun’s throaty vocal affirmations. His voice is notably higher in the mix than last time, and the guitar hooks are more jubilant than ever, but the band are still rough around the edges. That shaky marriage of lo-fi pub punk and Shogun’s heartening, soul-laced delivery is exactly what makes the band so special. Rather than being some novelty that loses its appeal, that bristling contrast makes the album a total thrill through every repeat listen.

“Royal Headache wind up reclaiming a lot of sincerity lost with the rise of indie rock”

An often-shirtless graduate of punk and hardcore bands singing earnest testimonials of love? It may sound suspect on paper, but the sheer hunger and vitality of Shogun’s delivery makes a potentially cheesy line like “Now I wanna be with you” ring out like the pure and simple truth it is. By the same token, the blown-out ‘Need You’ becomes another dogged mantra of his, maximising the band’s brash tunefulness for ecstatic pop release. That doesn’t mean it’s without worries; Shogun sings about trying to get it right, always aware of his own faults.

If Royal Headache’s first album could sound like a rudimentary salute to The Jam’s romantic soul-punk urgency, High expands their array of references. Yes, the hyperactive bent of ‘Another World’ does recall the Buzzcocks at their very scrappiest, and the opening of ‘Love Her If I Tried’ plays like a slower take on that band’s ‘Ever Fallen in Love’. But the pairing of beery guitar and Shogun’s roughened romanticism makes ‘My Own Fantasy’ and ‘Carolina’ feel more like The Replacements, while his soft and classy singing at the start of the musically subdued ‘Wouldn’t You Know’ hews closer to some late-1950s balladeer. Royal Headache wind up reclaiming a lot of sincerity lost with the rise of indie rock, as Shogun litters songs with punchy ‘yeah’s and name-checks guitarist Lawrence Hall with the old-fashioned callout “Take it, Larry” on the very first song.

Yet the recurring presence of sunny keyboards are kept low in the mix on High, where the most starry-eyed melodies arrive coated in the grit of real life. The lyrics follow suit, bringing dreamy hopes of love down to a more accurate realm. “Don’t be afraid/to be afraid of everyone,” Shogun belts out on the invigorating ‘Little Star’, while ‘My Own Fantasy’ weighs lofty ideals against bitter actuality for poignant results. It’s one of the most autobiographical entries here, directly addressing Shogun’s anxieties about fronting the band on their early tours. But nearly every song feels like some raw diary entry, whether transmuted into a jolting romp (‘Electric Shock’) or an organ-warmed softie (‘Carolina’).

The only song where that rawness turns against the band is ‘Love Her If I Tried’, which features too much repetition of the title and feels like an unfinished sketch. The best song, by contrast, is also the most surprising. Opening the album’s second half with the sound of broken glass and rubbish collection, ‘Garbage’ turns away from matters of love to corner the opposite extreme. “You’re garbage, you’re trash,” spits Shogun. “You’re not punk, you’re just scum.” As Joe Sukit’s fantastically sticky bass work comes to the fore, Shogun indulges in some much-needed venting that borders on a piss-take by the end: “You belong on smack/You belong down in Melbourne.” Yet it works – and then some. That pretty voice rent into a scream, it’s a bitter holiday from hopefulness.

It’d be nice to take this album simply as a bang-up collection of heartfelt rock tunes, but its backstory inevitably looms large over High. That’s just as well, though, since knowing the band’s actual tale of redemption – from basically broken up to revived and ascendant – doubles the healing power of the lyrics. These are instant adrenaline hits distinguished by the same candidness Shogun maintains in his interviews. What’s more, the searing production by Straight Arrows’ Owen Penglis renders the songs thicker and more rollicking, their head-bobbing catchiness given more weight and swagger than the first album had.

In a musical climate thick with Aussies smashing it overseas – from Courtney Barnett to Tame Impala – Royal Headache’s hard-won second act is especially encouraging. They’ve come back from the brink with a record that doesn’t hide their personal issues, but rather commandeers them for their best songs yet.