They Call It Rock and Roll

White Reaper by Michael Powelphoto by Michael Powel

“We think we’re making rock and roll… it’s kind of frustrating (to be labeled punk).”

Not too many of today’s rock stars actually play rock music. And the act of being a rock musician—a sincere (non-ironic) proponent of colossal guitar solos and epic vocals—is out of fashion, not hip, and uncool. In light of this, White Reaper’s debut LP, White Reaper Does It Again, is exceptional. It’s an unpretentious adrenaline shot of earnest, youthful glory, full of gloriously unnecessary drum fills, a handful of guitar riffs that wouldn’t sound out of place in Spinal Tap, and at its heart, the spectacularly snarling voice of Tony Esposito—giddy even when he’s pissed, euphoric even when he’s howling.

White Reaper emerged quickly and confidently out of a fertile scene of metal, punk, and noise bands in Louisville, Kentucky—a small city where, as the band points out, “you can get anywhere you need to go in twenty minutes.” Beyond White Reaper, the label Eviction Records and bands like Blood Planet, Weird Girl, and Black Kaspar have drawn attention to a thriving DIY community. The band explains, “A lot of people [coming to the shows] are really young… they’re really into it.” Having first nurtured them, Louisville has sent White Reaper out into the world as their ambassador.

The group’s self-titled EP, released last year, captures a fully formed band, albeit heard through a messy, hectic recording. These six songs are stealthily sweet, even when they threaten to explode or throttle you by the throat. On standout track “Half Bad,” each of Esposito’s throaty howls runs alongside a sugary keyboard riff, and the pummeling shrapnel explosions of cymbals collide into whimsical guitar riffs.

White Reaper Does It Again is the natural extension to the self-titled EP, and the band has learned a thing or two along the way: in the year since its release, White Reaper toured the country several times over with veteran bands like Priests and Deerhoof. “Watching how (other bands) handle their dance, you pick stuff up… or not,” says Ryan Hater, the band’s keyboardist. When the band returned to Louisville (they pronounce it “Loo-ville”), they enlisted local producer Kevin Ratterman to help enlarge their sound to its proper dramatic size, allowing White Reaper to shine and glow, roar and crash. “He’s awesome. He’s a musical genius. We didn’t even [have to] say anything to him,” the band says of Ratterman. “With other guys, we had to go over the same points. Kevin didn’t even talk to us. It was unbelievable.”

Ratterman’s intuition is evident from the first swells of “Make Me Wanna Die” that come flooding through your speakers, surging and punching all the way through the euphoric chorus. While before, the keyboards sounded almost cartoonish and out of place, standing out in sharp focus against the racket, here they meld perfectly into the mix.

Beyond Ratterman’s influential production, the biggest change between White Reaper’s EP and their debut album is the heightened confidence in Esposito’s voice; it’s a surprisingly versatile instrument, capable of hoarse bursts, wails, a punk snarl and a borderline Brit-pop affectation. He matches his band’s stadium-ready energy on “Make Me Wanna Die,” then he channels a snotty Mick Jagger on “I Don’t Think She Cares.”

White Reaper by Michael Powelphoto by Michael Powel

While Esposito’s snarls evoke some of punk’s most fabled past, White Reaper’s music is rooted far more in undiluted rock and roll. “We think we’re making rock and roll… it’s kind of frustrating (to be labeled punk),” Esposito says. “Pills” sounds delightfully like a Cars B-Side, and “On Your Mind” is much more likely to make you boogie than mosh. Later, on “Sheila,” bassist Sam Wilkinson adds a surf feel to the thrashing drums, themselves bearing an uncanny resemblance to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” White Reaper Does It Again is an amalgamation of rock and roll history, tropes and styles, held together by sincerity and unrelenting energy.

On Spoon’s 2005 record, Gimme Fiction, frontman Britt Daniel howled, “When you don’t feel it / it shows / when you believe they call it rock and roll.” White Reaper is a realization of that prophecy: a band that believes in unadulterated rock music, that doesn’t eschew its braggadocio or its joy in favor of irony or modesty. White Reaper might even crank it up to eleven.

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