Master Volume is the big, fun rock album of the year.
The motherfuckin’ Dirty Nil from Dundas, Ontario, Canada is finally approaching the precipice. We always knew it would come to this, the only surprise is that it took this long. Folks are excited about Master Volume, their excellent sophomore album, and for good reason: it rips, slaps, fucks, what have you. Luke Bentham has become the Rock n’ Roll Prophet he’s always tried to embody, and he has made disciples of kids and hardened critics alike. Master Volume will inevitably find the Dirty Nil many new fans — more than they’ve ever had — yet not nearly as many as they believe they deserve.
The Dirty Nil are a band that has the rare ability to soften the hardest of music snobs. For nearly a decade, they have pounded the pavement, creating new fans out of everyone from kids, bros, and casual music fans to the most cynical of old punks, rockstars, scene veterans, and hard-of-hearing soundmen. They’ve achieved this by being a shit-hot live band, and by wisely playing the long game — staying independent for far longer than they needed to in order to cultivate that essential punk-cred. They were respected, adored and they knew it because everyone who saw them told them so.
A real question does arise, though: how does a Johnny Rockstar like Bentham resist the urge to reach a bigger audience faster? There is a key part of the Dirty Nil’s story missing from the fawning profiles. I cannot and will not claim to know what led to long-time bassist and sometime-singer Dave Nardi leaving the band, but it always seemed to me like he was what kept them grounded for so long, for better or for worse. For me, Nardi was always the reason the Dirty Nil worked. He was the counterweight that balanced out Bentham’s chest-baring rockstar. The band’s theatrics were usually kept at a tasteful level and it all worked harmoniously.
Losing Dave Nardi and hiring Ross Miller (of Northern Primitive, Daniel Romano’s Trilliums, and Sideman) is like simultaneously gaining a Dave Grohl and losing a Matt Sharp. When Dave Grohl joined Nirvana, they were complete and became everything they had the potential of being. When Matt Sharp left Weezer, the band lost its soul and were never able to capture what it was that made Weezer and Pinkerton so special. With Miller now handling the low end, the Nil are able to have their cake and eat it too. They can be respected by the underground and win a Juno, although, without Nardi’s seeming ability to ground the band, I worry that their heads will no longer fit through the door of the dingy punk clubs they are so comfortable laying waste to. That said, they have just released their best and most consistent collection of music to date.
First and foremost, Master Volume sounds amazing. There is nothing these guys love more than talking about gear, combinations of gear, and how to achieve the most awe-inspiring tone. That devotion to tone craft really shines through. Every one of Kyle Fisher’s drum hits thunderously cut through the mix. Every lick and chord is filled with sexual electricity aimed right at your brain’s pleasure centres. Bentham’s voice, which has always been an incredible instrument, sounds better than ever. He sings with a little more soul and swagger than he has on past recordings and his ability to roll into a spine-tingling scream remains the most thrilling garnish the band can employ. There are moments on Master Volume that find them sounding a little more widescreen, like the saxophone blasts that accentuate the fury of the audaciously named “Please, Please Me”. As many have asserted since its release, this is the big, fun rock album of the year.
The first four tracks on Master Volume are undeniably perfect. Opener “That’s What Heaven Feels Like” treads the great/goofy line flawlessly. When the “We Will Rock You” solo kicks in, my eyes roll until Bentham adds his soon-to-be-famous mustard to the chorus, and my eyes somersault back into position. “Bathed in Light” is transcendent in subject matter and musical execution. “Pain of Infinity”, to my ears, is the best Nil tune yet, not too fast, not to slow but perfectly cathartic. The “Let’s do whatever you want” refrain married to and mimicking the opening riff is a stroke of brilliance, simple and effective like so many essential rock songs that have come before it. That said, the two tunes preceding it could easily be counted as the “best” Nil song depending on the listener. Next comes the aforementioned “Please, Please Me”, followed by the album’s first misstep “Auf Wiedersehen”, a too-slow and too-confrontational kiss-off to a former friend. “Always High” features the best Weezer-inspired Nil chorus yet; it also makes Weezer sound like chumps with its power.
The album loses me a bit from there. While the music feels like standard Nil, the lyrics read a little too holier-than-thou. I think what I hope for from future Nil releases is a little more vulnerability from Bentham. Perhaps a little more self-reflection, and a little less finger pointing. We get a taste of what that might feel like on the excellent closing track, “Evil Side”, which wouldn’t sound out of place on the first half of The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance (the last band to effectively merge stadium and punk rock to great effect) with its piano-accentuated, guitar noise climax and drawled tombstone references. Betham refers to a “darkness no one sees”, though he never really goes deeper than that. Considering the Nil are here to stay, perhaps we will understand this darkness a little better as time goes on.
Witnessing a band work, grow, and bloom is a complicated thing. For the first time, I understand why fans of bands who have gone to have long careers insist in earnest the old stuff is better. With the Dirty Nil, however, it’s not that the old stuff is better, it’s that I’m still enamoured with a version of the band that no longer exists. That version perfectly balanced punk-rock cool with the thrilling, but sort of unfashionable, classic rock showmanship and bravado. They may still be “incompetent stadium rockers”, but if everything keeps rolling the way it has been for the band, however unlikely it may seem based on current trends and taste, they may wind up as bonafide stadium rockers. Whether or not they will be able to keep pleasing everyone all the time — to keep eating that cake — remains to be seen.