On their last record Patrick Stickles took his punk outfit Titus Andronicus on a stripped down piano lead detour, A Productive Cough, which was messy, yet ultimately interesting and successful. Now for An Obelisk he retreats back, mining familiar caves of loud guitars and lots of cascading verses with galvanizing choruses around bar rock and just slightly skewed/scuffed up arena-ready riffs.
The opening trio of “Just Like Ringing A Bell”, “Troubleman Unlimited” and “(I Blame) Society” are just the first examples that call to mind the groups 2012 release Local Business, which An Obelisk is reminiscent of; both albums kick off strong and then contain hits and misses as they progress.
“Just Like Ringing A Bell” is patented +@, a full upbeat romp through religion questioning, modern creature comforts and lesser rock and roll while the middle piece calls back Stickles push and pull father figure Bruce Springsteen with the mid-tempo tune looking at heroes/fathers/sons before wrapping up with the screeching snarl directly lashing out of “(I Blame) Society” which whines with some effectiveness.
Stickles has commented that the vocalist and lyrics come from “a narrator” on this record and this person is a bit more naïve than Stickles himself as he writes through a mouthpiece or character. The album isn’t linked thematically or personally coming from Stickles (for those traits, check out The Most Lamentable Tragedy) but this is all familiar ground for anyone following the band.
“Me and My Body” addresses Stickles self-image/mental health issues he has written about in the past over a blues-rock strut before “Hey Mama” incorporates a bubbling bass line and marching drums reminiscent of early Who family focused tracks before devolving into Celtic inspired riffs. The track is bloated and while Stickles almost always goes too long it is the shorter efforts that work better as the stripped-down “Beneath the Boot” displays a raw punkish grit and “On The Street” is even more successful in this vein; he may never have a 10 song 28 minute album in him, but these tunes are proof one could work.
For a jolt of rock and roll “The Lion Inside” is a clear standout combining what Stickles does best, raging against the dying light, the machine and the self-doubt choking him, all of it coalescing around a punked up bar rock riff as backing vocals add to the motoring low end, ending in a pretty glorious scene and a damn fine tune.
The less successful weighty “Within The Gravitron” pushes and pulls with punk riffs and then goes for a vamp breakdown as Chris Wilson’s drums and R.J. Gordon’s bass keep things moving but the extended workout isn’t overly affecting or enlightening, album closer “Tumult Around the World” is more successful with its great ringing guitar riffs and head bobbing energy.
Stickles is an artist who loves making statements and even on this non-statement making record he is making one (just check out the accompanying STACKS TV show with this release), but while the overall tone and style fits him and the band well, the majority of songs are fine yet not particularly memorable. A Productive Cough looks like a mid-career outlier now as Titus Andronicus settle back into their pub rock punk hybrid on An Obelisk.