Upon hearing that legendary northwest garage rockers The Sonics were releasing a new album – their first in (gulp!) nearly fifty years – in 2015, I didn’t know if I should be excited or very, very afraid. Here was a band that helped to invent the signature, rowdy rock and roll sound in the early-to-mid ‘60s and delivered songs such as “Psycho,” “The Witch” and “Strychnine” that dove into much darker lyrical territory than was common at the time. This sort of content and their noticeably unpolished sound led the band to be considered among the most important protopunk groups, but like many influential bands, The Sonics never quite found the success they probably deserved during their original incarnation. By the late ‘60s, they’d split up to pursue other musical ventures, only occasionally reconvening to prove they could still rock out.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about the current version of the band (and their 2015 album This is the Sonics) is that founding members Gerry Roslie (keyboards, lead vocals), Larry Parypa (guitar, vocals), and Rob Lind (sax, harp, vocals) are not only still alive but still performing at a level similar to what they were doing in 1965. Sure, there are other “old head” bands around – aside from the miracle that is The Rolling Stones, The 13th Floor Elevators just reunited at 2015’s Levitation and I’ve seen a couple of shows from the still-touring Zombies – but none of those groups are playing music quite as intense and rowdy as what The Sonics still regularly crank out. Admittedly, This is the Sonics has toned the band’s typically out-of-control sound down a bit, but in being able to recapture even some of the magic that made The Sonics special in the first place, I’d call it a genuine success.
Made up of an even dozen rowdy old-time rock songs, the vast majority of which run under three minutes in length, This is the Sonics is nothing if not energetic. Slam-bang opener “I Don’t Need No Doctor” finds Roslie at his most manic, delivering the same sort of almost primitive lyrical observations that featured on the early Sonics records, with omnipresent tambourine, churning bass (from Freddie Dennis, replacing original bassist Andy Parypa who is unable to tour) and an overload of raunchy sax driving the song forward. The percussive “Be a Woman” builds into a thrashing chorus with a hammering beat provided by new drummer Dusty Watson (replacing founding member Bob Bennett), and the churning “Bad Betty” shuffles along to a lurching rhythm with a fantastic back and forth solo section for the sax and organ.
Roslie’s clearly having fun accentuating the lyrics in “You Can’t Judge a Book By Looking at the Cover,” which sounds vaguely similar to the punk rock with sax music of X-Ray Spex, while the flat-out noisier “The Hard Way” almost recalls ‘90s pop punk and even has a singalong chorus of “hey hey hey” vocals. The next few songs find The Sonics traversing through Chuck Berry territory (“Sugaree”), art punk (“Leaving Here”), and even bluesy ‘70s classic rock (“Look at Little Sister”) before the honky, hook-driven “I Got Your Number” plays like a loud but catchy early ‘80s punk crossover tune. After the somewhat downbeat and noisy “Living in Chaos,” the band unleashes a fun but slightly slower number in “Save the Planet,” (is it possible to hate a song that goes “we gotta save the planet / it’s the only one with beer?”) and a Kinks-like closer in “Spend the Night.”
Even though there definitely seems to be a “dad rock” vibe going on, it’s virtually impossible to genuinely dislike This is the Sonics (which was recorded in “earth-shattering mono” and sounds deliciously raw). Since this was made by the same band that developed and perfected the song formulas heard here, I can’t really get on them too much about the album sounding familiar. Certainly, the record isn’t as balls-to-the-wall exhilarating as the classic Sonics albums (namely, 1965’s Here are the Sonics and the following year’s Boom) but it’s frankly amazing that it’s not only as undeniably decent as it is, but that it rocks this hard considering more than half of the players featured are in their seventies. Five decades on in their career, I’m not sure The Sonics would hold mass appeal to mainstream audiences, but those who like the band’s older material could hardly go wrong checking out this new work – it’s better than I would have ever expected.