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Like the volumes of Edgar Allan Poe and Allen Ginsberg that inspire Black Rebel Motorcycle Club's dark lyrical oeuvre, Robert Levon Been's music has often dealt directly with death. So it's only natural that the band's latest album, Specter at the Feast, fearlessly approaches the Dark Angel, but this time there's a devastatingly personal perspective. While in Belgium in 2010, Been's father, Michael, BRMC's touring sound engineer and former lead singer of '80s cult outfit The Call, suffered a fatal heart attack. He was a mentor and father figure to guitarist Peter Hayes and percussionist Leah Shapiro, and his death deeply impacted the whole band.
Been describes his return to music as somewhat reluctant, but following the sound is what got him and the band through those bleak, white-knuckled moments.
"All of us needed some time away," Been says over the phone. "It was a long process, but it was kind of necessary. We needed to make sure that we felt like we really had something to offer."
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The result was some of their finest work to date, an album that feels seamless as it meanders through every stage of the grieving process. Tracks such as "Hate the Taste" and "Teenage Disease" spit fire, but the album ebbs just as naturally into melancholy territory with "Lullaby" and "Lose Yourself." Most notably, the cover of The Call's "Let the Day Begin" is a 21-gun salute to the band's singer.
"Everything felt very stripped away for this album . . . It was kind of the way we needed it, just a truly clean slate," Been says. "We took these times to meet together and rehearse and jam out for hours and hours. After seven or eight hours of doing that, we would find everything else around, the rest of the world, would quiet down for a little while. We could resonate on one tone, one frequency. It kind of gave me something to hold onto, something that was beautiful and felt like there was life and growth to it."
"Returning" is a perfect example, describing those moments when you have to pick up the pieces and push forward.
"For myself, I was kind of trying to use [the song] for that purpose because I needed to hold on to that, more than anything," Been says. "The album itself is a reminder of what we've still got, and the light and the energy that's within that."
Been says that Specter at the Feast is different from earlier BRMC records in one way, in particular: It aims to meet listeners, especially the grieving and the struggling, where they are.
My own relationship with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has always been deeply personal. The first time I heard of the band was when a friend of a friend hanged himself while spinning BRMC's self-titled debut. The death of someone I had never even met left a deep impact on me, but part of me found it twistedly beautiful that he wanted that particular album to be shared with the world he left behind.
I tell all that to Been, feeling my friend of a friend would have wanted someone to share his story, and he seems to understand, and to relate, immediately.
"A lot of people don't know what to do with things like that," Been says. "There's enough people in the world that need to hear someone else out there who shares the same feelings or the same struggles, the same pain. Music, that's the most beautiful thing about it — that it can bring people up."