With its inspired and inspiring third album, Vice (Anodyne), The Architects have asserted their rightful place atop the rock & roll heap. And we’re not talking about a heap where celebreality girlfriends and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious song titles trump skill, song craft and stick-to-itiveness. Fuck that noise. The Architects are gimmick-free and full of vigor, building off of a punk and classic rock blueprint while playing with a heart and authenticity that’s become a rarity in 2008.
From the riff-rattling ferocity of “New Boots and Truncheons” to the blistering, heartfelt roar of “Daddy Wore Black” and beyond, this KCMO foursome tips its respective hats – both sonically and spiritually – to the likes of Kiss, The Clash, AC/DC, Johnny Cash and The Replacements with brilliant results.
“I’m still kind of devoted to my old idols,” chief Architect Brandon Phillips explains, describing the lyrical core of Vice. “I looked a lot harder at Cash, [Merle] Haggard and [Waylon] Jennings this time out; people who wrote really good story songs. Somehow it’s important to me that rock & roll – at least the kind that I want to make – stays kind of badass. Even when it’s a love song, you should know it’s a badass singing that.”
Few anthems get as badass as “Hard Times,” an accelerated contagion that will not be denied, or as dark and sinister as the infectious “Drop In The Bottle.” Brandon – who has long acknowledged that his rough, crime-addled neighborhood gives him a lot to write about – admits, “There’s a lot of cops and robbers stuff on Vice. I thought at first the record was going to be wholly about drugs, but that got boring. Besides, every great story ever told about drugs has something to do with the law or with the cops or court-ordered rehab.”
Coming off of 2006’s raw, violence-themed, highly-acclaimed, Revenge, Brandon and his younger brothers Zach (bass) and Adam (drums) – all of whom did time in the iconic punk outfit The Gadjits – aligned with new guitarist and road veteran Keenan Nichols, who the elder Phillips calls “an easy fit” with the band. “We didn’t have to explain the unspoken rules of touring to him,” the Architects mouthpiece says. “Not to mention he’s an awesome guy with a super positive attitude.”
Together, The Architects sought to build an even stronger song cycle with Vice than its predecessor. “I was pretty vicious about getting rid of anything lyric or music-wise that felt like it was too hip for the room,” Brandon says of the collective’s devotion to quality. “We bow to our influences and the bands that we love, but it wasn’t done with any kind of smartass indie rock vibe. I’ve been doing this a really long time. I don’t have to prove I can play. I can play.”
“I decided I needed to break a lot of my old stupid indie rock habits,” Brandon insists, acknowledging the need for lyrical clarity on album number three. “I don’t see any overarching value in dropping really heady aphorisms to music and calling it a song. So fuck that. We spent a really long time writing these songs.”
Enter Kansas City-based, platinum-certified producer Aaron Connor (Bone, Thugs N’ Harmony), who joined forces with the foursome for Vice after a demo session turned fruitful. “We wanted an unimpeachable record,” Brandon says. “And Aaron became personally invested in this being a really great record. He’s obviously a capable engineer and producer, so he could have had it mixed in four days and been done with it. But he gave it his extra attention, and it felt good to relinquish control. Sometimes when you’re immersed in that kind of shit its hard to keep an objective view, but we’ve learned its okay to take advice from credible people.”
Vice brings to mind a number of big, late 1970s records. For instance, the vintage, melodic hard rock roar of “Jersey Shore,” holds the keys to Detroit Rock City and feels as exhilarating as a wave crashing down overhead. Elsewhere, “Continental” is as much about ZZ Top’s Degüello as it is about explicit drug tragedies, while the Cheap Trick meter is on high for the Graduate-gone-wrong tack of “Mrs. Doyle.”
“I hope I made the Graduate a little more interesting,” Brandon says. “I left it open ended. There is no resolution. I don’t get the girl at the end of the song and I like that a little bit better. I found the ending of the Graduate to be terribly implausible.” Equally influenced by late 1970s U.K. mod/pop heroes The Jam, the latter also features a guest cameo by one-time Gadjits keyboardist Ehren Starks.
If the aforementioned “Daddy Wore Black” seems deserving of the airwaves, Phillips says the song’s elementary design could easily be molded to other genres. “You know you could slow that down and have Steve Earle sing it and it would fly,” he insists. “I’m not looking to put steel guitars on our records or anything, and we definitely have our own way of doing things, but that outlaw country music has definitely had an influence on me.”
For Brandon Phillips, who in addition to fronting The Architects works full time running Anodyne Records – also home to The Valley Arena and the newly reformed Meat Puppets – the need to keep busy is inherent. “As the oldest child in a broken home, I have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility,” he concedes. “Plus, it’s a good feeling knowing that no matter what happens I’ve at least seized the reins of my own existence.”
With a heightened dedication to songwriting and a commitment to matching the production value with the song quality, Brandon, Zach, Adam and Keenan have played to their collective strengths and knocked out their finest disc to date. It’s a notion upheld by the throbbing, vehement “Cold Hard Facts,” the urgent, punky sing-along “Help” and the poetic, murder-ravaged “Oklahoma”.
“I’d really like to be able to have a lot of people hear this record,” Brandon concludes. “I think we’ve made a record that sounds like it could be a lot more accessible to a lot more people.”
Compelling, insightful, artistic, vibrant and – most importantly – honest, The Architects play it like they mean it on Vice. Are you fucking listening?