Devil Met Contention cut a distinctive figure in the Milwaukee music scene. Catch them live and it’s impossible to miss their impeccably styled suit-and-tie aesthetic, cribbed straight from the dress code of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. But beneath the sweet threads lies a just-as-distinctive musical sensibility: On 2015’s American Times EP, frontman Ehson Rad growled his way through five tracks of pitch-black southern-gothic rock, casting himself and his fellow musicians as a “barking-mad bar band, grinning gleefully as one half of the crowd calls for one more song, and the other calls for the group’s blood.” Now, on the band’s debut full-length album Fuel The Lights, Devil Met Contention stretches its legs and eases into a more relaxed, confident, and cool style. It suits them well.
Plaintive opener “Before The Horse” perfectly embodies that newfound grace, scoring big with a piano, harmonica, and Rad’s surprising Springsteen-esque croon. The singer’s ever-malleable voice may be the band’s biggest change this time around (largely gone is Rad’s Tom Waits-inspired howl from American Times), but it’s not the only one. Recorded over two weeks at Howl Street Studios, Fuel The Lights is the first Devil Met Contention album to be performed and arranged by all current members, including guitarist David Schuyler, bassist Max Nemer, and drummer Nez. That collaboration effortlessly shines on the album’s more somber tracks—”Horse,” the gorgeously sepia-toned “Die Easy”—but it translates well to the its livelier moments, too. The giddy-up clip of country rave-up “Thunder & Lightning” (inspired by the 2013 Ryan Gosling gem The Place Beyond The Pines) feels affectionate and warm, while the whiskey-soaked “Dark On The Horizon” tosses in an accordion, a trombone, and a melodica for good measure. “Used To Be,” meanwhile, is a haunting slab of dusty Americana, and the self-explanatory “Ferguson” is a powerful protest song in a musical landscape sadly bereft of them.
Splitting the difference between the Devil Met Contention of old and new are the glowering “Holy Ranger” and the perfectly realized “Burn That Bridge.” The latter, says Rad, is about “preparing to leave a place that was your home, only to realize that the thing you want most is to never return.” Likewise, the album’s title, taken from “Bridge,” “is a way of saying, ‘Prepare for a journey through the dark unknown.'” Those are potentially lonely roads, to be sure, but Devil Met Contention navigate them expertly, barreling ahead and looking good in the process.
Before Devil Met Contention release the digital version of Fuel The Lights Tuesday, June 28, listen to it now, only on Milwaukee Record.