Saturday, June 4, 2022

REVIEW - The Ancients: Leveler

Although former New Jersey/current Nashville-based singer Fred Schreck is not a household name, he has been the voice of some of the most exciting American Alternative music of the past three-plus decades.

Way back in 1991, Schreck made a name for himself in New York City’s then-thriving underground music scene via the eponymous debut album by his band, The Ancients. Regulars at CBGB and the Luna Lounge and championed by none other than Joey Ramone, The Ancients seemed destined for greatness. Unfortunately, the band never gained widespread attention outside of its local scene and imploded before achieving mainstream success. Schreck soon re-emerged as the singer for Crush, a short-lived supergroup circa 1993 with former members of Killing Joke and Siouxsie and the Banshees that released a stellar self-titled major label album before suffering a similar fate. Schreck’s inability to break through the second time around said more about the fickle nature of the music business than it did about the man’s gifts at the mic. In a marketplace consumed by Grunge at the time, Schreck’s soulful, Goth-tinged voice was too easily overlooked.

Shortly after the Crush era, Schreck worked on a second Ancient album with longtime collaborator Morgan Visconti and a host of guests (including Killing Joke/Crush drummer Big Paul Ferguson) before the sessions were put on the shelf for nearly 20 years while Schreck relocated to Nashville and pursued an Alternative Country route with a group called The Billygoats. (Schreck’s return to more Rock-oriented sounds roughly a decade ago as a member of the fantastic Satellite Paradiso is also of note.) This long-lost Ancients album, finally released in 2015 as Mind, was easily one of the best records of that year and served as a reminder of Schreck’s strengths as a songwriter and singer.

Here’s a snippet of what I wrote about Mind at the time:

It would be a shame if the Schreck/Visconti partnership doesn't take advantage of Mind's arrival to create new sounds in the future. The world needs more music as perfect as this.

Thankfully, we finally have it. Released on May 13, The Ancients’ Leveler finds Schreck writing, arranging, producing and performing virtually every note. Initially conceived by Schreck as a solo project during lockdown, the album became the third official Ancients album upon Visconti’s return to co-write and perform various sonic duties on the track “Nihilist.” With help from Nashville-based engineer Joe Costa (Ben Folds/Amanda Palmer) and occasional contributions from drummers Frank Coleman (Satellite Paradiso/Bentmen/Secret Agent) and David “Pup” Roberts and guitarist Rich Pilger (perhaps best known among New Jersey music scene aficionados as a member of ’80s glam rockers Monroe), Schreck has created a solid new chapter in The Ancients discography and perhaps the most musically varied album in the group’s history.

Here are a few of the release’s many highlights:

The album charges out of the gate with a title track (co-written by Schreck’s old friend and pre-Ancients bandmate David Landolin) that showcases the singer’s exquisite guitar playing - a stunning blend of Schreck’s Satellite Paradiso bandmate John Ashton (The Psychedelic Furs) and the late Andy Gill of Gang of Four. This album opener is followed by the beautifully somber “Blue Seventeen,” a perfect 3am driving song that inspires thoughts of what it would be like if Robert Gordon sang in a David Lynch film. The lush, elegant and multi-layered “Tanto” falls somewhere between the best moments of Peter Murphy’s solo work and Country Life-era Roxy Music, while the brooding “Nihilist” is the track on Leveler that most reminds this writer of The Ancients’ classic ’91 debut. (A reissue of that first album is said to be in the works. I can’t think of a collection of songs more deserving of new life.)

Leveler’s greatest moment, the extraordinary “Blow,” harkens back to the vibe of New York City’s glory years. You can practically smell clove cigarettes and feel the sweat of a packed crowd within the old Limelight’s former church walls as the song – fueled by Schreck’s soaring vocals in the chorus and some truly outstanding drumming by Coleman – plays on. Album closer “The Eastern Sky” (co-written by Pilger, another one of Schreck’s old Jersey pals and pre-Ancients bandmates, who also makes a guest appearance on guitar) brings the proceedings to a rousing conclusion thanks in large part to impressive, effects-laden lead fretwork.

In a 1993 Swedish television interview, Andrew Eldridge of The Sisters of Mercy said the following when discussing why his band hadn’t reached the same level of sales as Roxette and other more successful bands of the era:

“We might not mean as much to as many people, but we mean more to the people that we reach […] Ultimately, if I have to choose between reaching more people or reaching a few people deeper, I would choose to reach a few people deeper every time.”

For my money, there’s no better series of words to also sum up The Ancients’ sporadic existence over the last 30 or so years. The previous two albums released under that moniker didn’t get anywhere near the attention and acclaim they deserved, but those listeners who know Schreck’s work have experienced an artist (italicized for a reason, folks) whose output never fails to intrigue and excite. Leveler is an incredible addition to the Ancients canon and easily one of the strongest albums of 2022. If you’re new to what Schreck has to offer, this is an excellent place to start.

Leveler is available on all streaming platforms.