Los Angeles five-piece Death Valley Girls have made their name in evoking a certain kind of late ’60s/early ’70s rock and roll – the point where the raw power of The Stooges and the MC5 meets the horror glam of The New York Dolls and The Cramps, with a hefty dose of the era’s psych flavour laid on-top.
But one of the lesser known outfits of the period – or certainly, where this writer is concerned – is Atomic Rooster, an offshoot of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, whose track ‘Breakthrough’ is being covered here. And even though that would normally be on-trend for DVG, the song actually found them via a cover by ’70s Nigerian rockers The Funkees. If that wasn’t circuitous enough, the single’s PR also cites the band’s contact with Damien Echols as another inspiration for the EP of the same name – specifically the development of his powers as a magician, master meditator and expert on astral projection, whilst serving eighteen years on death row, when wrongfully convicted as part of the West Memphis Three.
That complexity aside, the track is a rip-snorter. Initially built around a full minute of pulsing organ chord and riff-tastic guitars, the song really kicks into gear with lead singer Bonnie Bloomgarden’s vocals, echoey and ethereal, but powerful with it. Its chorus verges on stadium anthemic, with the phrase “I gotta make a breakthrough!” on repeat, before the word “NOW!” brings in its middle eight organ reprise and funky guitar licks.
At a full five minutes and twenty-six seconds, this is no latter-day to-the-point banger, but the kind of old-style garage rawk experience that you can really live in, with a rhythm section that starts simple but builds in intensity towards its crescendo close. Its foot-stomping is most reminiscent of fellow psych-revivalists GOAT – perhaps unsurprising given that both bands have come to their sound via Afro-rock – although here it’s served with a quintessential US growl and underscored by a mix of Cali trippiness and Southern fried fretwork.
The reference to Echols’ experience is made pretty clear by the song’s lyrics, with their reference to breaking out of the prisons, both visible and invisible, in which we find ourselves.
The EP’s other side is another cover, albeit from a very different source. Having gigged briefly with the late alt-indie great Daniel Johnston, DVG have covered his ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll / EGA’ from the 1994 album Fun by way of a tribute.
Clearly, for the group, there’s an emotional resonance to both tracks and it’s no coincidence, perhaps, that the EP’s release comes at a time when individuals are looking for sweet relief at a difficult time. The Johnston song, with its refrain of “That rock n roll / It saved my soul”, coupled with the EP’s title track, is a clear indicator of where Death Valley Girls currently find themselves – looking back to the past, for some guidance of where to go next. A little bit of retro-rock might just be what we all need to break through.
Photo Credit: Abby Banks