Before you read this, take everything you’ve heard about the Asheville, NC music scene and chuck it out the window. Throw it hard, maybe let it clip the head of the bouncer checking IDs a floor below while the wooks and the wokes smoke cigarettes and talk about their star signs on the sidewalk. In a town where the willingness — not necessarily the ability — to perform Grateful Dead covers seems almost like the requisite entry fee to join the scene, Tongues of Fire come creeping through the side door, skulking along in the dark and setting up quietly before busting out and blowing the goddamn roof off of this hipster haven in the sky.
Coming on the heels of the death of frontman and lead songwriter Lowell Hobbs’ mother in 2019, the five-song EP Burn My Body Clean is a blistering album that never comes right out and tells you that you’re witnessing catharsis in action, but you feel it nonetheless. Hobbs has said that each of the songs on Burn My Body Clean reflects a part of the grieving process, and while many such tributes can come across as trite and overwrought with tear-dripping sorrow, Burn My Body Clean reveals a brutal authenticity that speaks to the depth and breadth of the full gamut of emotions that surround such an event.
The single “Room” kicks off the album with fuzzy, distorted guitar and leads into a traditional punk rock beat before Hobbs takes the vocal reins with a staccato bark — “It doesn’t feel alright, I sleep all day I’m up all night I know – I’ve – got – to – go – do – something” — that hits the listener with an intensity that doesn’t let up until the record’s over, and even then, it doesn’t stop because you can’t help but have it on repeat.
“Numb” gives the best indication of why Tongues of Fire are classified as post-punk, despite the range of influences that shape their sound. It’s almost as if you’re listening to a punk band while a modern rock guitarist is noodling around in the next room, dreaming about the early ‘80s and blending seamlessly now and then with what the adjacent band is doing. Lowell’s breathless lyrics and the accompanying melodies paint a picture of a man who is flat exhausted, hitting the floor when the song is over, tired of going and determined not to quit.
“Clean” feels like a perfect oxymoron, with its gritty guitar effects and low and dirty bassline; this is what it would have sounded like if grunge had been allowed to grow up and keep its heritage of punk. The vocals sing a Seattle lullaby and then jolt you awake with a nightmare before rocking you back to sleep again — and over and over again. It’s damn near perfection.
Remember the first time you heard thrash metal, and you closed your eyes and bobbed your head and then the drums kicked in with that machine gun tempo and your eyes flew open and you knew you’d found something that would stick with you until you were way past old enough to force your kids to listen to what “real music” used to be? “Silence” captures that feeling so precisely that it ought to come with a disclaimer to be careful listening while driving, because you just might lose yourself in it.
And finally, there is “inst.” Musically speaking, it’s an incredibly well-crafted mostly instrumental number, where each member of the band — Hobbs and Brent J. Kent on guitar, Maddie Kendrick on bass (don’t tell us girls can’t play bass; this woman needs to be higher on everyone’s list of badass musicians), and Eli Raymer on drums — showcases their ability without anyone overshadowing anyone else. Beyond that, though, there is an ethereal quality to the final song on Room. Hobbs’ mother can be heard speaking faintly in the beginning, and it’s the voice of comfort that everyone craves. It fades, and the music crescendos into something that invites your heart to palpitate with it, guitars rising and falling, and then it comes to an unexpected and abrupt end.
And then it’s over, and in the pause, you realize you might have forgotten to breathe.
Burn My Body Clean is proof that punk rock is alive and well, that it’s growing into something that retains its core ferocity and most importantly, its authenticity. There is nothing on Burn My Body Clean that isn’t expertly done, and it stands as hands down one of the most consistently tight albums of the past 20 years. Let’s keep it coming, Asheville. It’s about time for something different.
You can catch Tongues of Fire at their album release show Sunday, September 5 at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, NC.
Photo by Geddi Monroe