BY DANNY R. PHILLIPS
Driving down the road on a cool Midwestern day, I flip through the stations on my car’s radio. I scan the dial, hoping with each growing failure to find something concrete, something to move me past boredom, it dawns on me that, rock and roll as an art-form, is a wounded animal alone in the forest looking for a quiet, beautiful place to die. In its place is the rise of easy to digest, autotuned, sanitized and ultimately, boring music, a white-washed version of what use to be considered cool and ultimately, worthwhile.
Unless you dig deep past metal and the abomination that is buttrock and the Five Finger Death Punches of an exceedingly awful rock horizon, good bar rock can be hard to find. Where are the bands that embody what it means to embrace what came before, forging ahead toward a new day rising? Something to foster, love and support when you find it, one that celebrates the idea that making good, thought provoking music, partying hard while pulling rock from it drudgery.
I found just such a band in “The Little Apple” Manhattan, Kansas. They are Headlight Rivals.
The band’s debut full-length “Mattson” for Kansas City, Missouri based Blacksite Records is a tour de force; blending influences such as The Replacements, The Who, Son Volt, Sugar, the drunken brilliance of Guided by Voices, a fair helping of early days Soul Asylum mixed with a hefty dose of Memphis, Tennessee forgotten giants Big Star.
Headlight Rivals have put all their cards on the table here, releasing an album that is truly a work of passion, persistence and straight ahead rock n roll. “Mattson” (named for Rich Mattson,the owner of Sparta Sound in Evelth, Minnesota where it was recorded) mixes melody with aggression, sound and fury; killer guitars from Eric Kleiner, a fat low end courtesy of Seven Black and phenomenal drumming brought by Eric’s cousin Kris Kleiner, the trio’s killer playing is augmented here by masterful mixing and engineering from Rich Mattson, all pieces coming together to create an album that will not be soon forgotten, a great first shot in a catalog that will certainly be stacked to the rafters by the time they lay down their instruments and charge towards the horizon, leaving their mark on Midwest music history and bars everywhere.
Opening with “All The Same to Me,” a rocker that elicits memories in me of listening to The ‘Mats and later period Husker Du while smoking a joint and hating my life in a rundown apartment in the middle of nowhere Missouri, the tones full, the playing unrivaled here in the heart of America.. “Some Ghosts” is a song about past loves and the pain that comes along with the exit, how the memories come flooding back to haunt you in the quiet times of the day, jamming like a track from “Still Gone” era Uncle Tupelo. “So Well” blasts from the speakers like a lost Matthew Sweet track, aching to the bone with pain and lose, exploding with guitars and lyrics drenched in melancholy.
While the ruckus that Headlight Rivals create may at times seem familiar, “Mattson” is by no means a re-hash of what came before; Seven, Eric and Kris clearly love rock and all that comes with it, molding something raw, wild and moving with “Mattson.” This is an album full of triumph and loss, blistering venom and soft melody. What they have created is something that should be heard, absorbed and reflected on. What the three piece from Kansas have given us isn’t just any album, “Mattson” is one of the best to see the light of day in 2019.