No matter what goes down, Royal Headache can always claim they were committed. The Sydney punks released their debut in 2011, earning acclaim for their inclusion of soul vocals amid lo-fi punk. But while they churned out perfectly cut, bite-sized songs akin to Pizza Rolls for the rebellious, aspirational soul, the four members ran headfirst into internal disagreement. Come 2014, vocalist Shogun left the band. Surprisingly, the rest of the group was cool with it — as long as he stuck around to finish their sophomore album first.
Shogun’s vocals are what give Royal Headache their approachable sheen. It softens the blow of raw chords, suggesting the band believes in manners above all else when getting a pit going. Songs like “Carolina” and “Little Star” feel like Springsteen demos with Rod Stewart charm, scaling back on intensity so that a new generation of softy kids struggling to raise their middle fingers isn’t overwhelmed by gritty attitude. The ferocity of punk intimidates some. For those entering the field, High is a pair of training wheels. Even the album’s title track, a good-natured romp through the park with friends at your side, sounds like a muted clink of beers in celebration of revolt to come. It’s cheap, sure, but mediocre songs level out the uproar on others.
High is laced with passion. It’s dancing with its eyes closed, stomping Doc Martens on the concrete floor of a garage, unaware of the sweat beading on its skin. It’s there on “Another World”, setting fire to harmonies with perfectly repetitive guitar riffs while drums plow through it all. It’s on “Electric Shock”, impersonating the spring in your feet that comes from youthfulness and the energy it has to spare. It’s on “Garbage”, punting sheets of glass and kicking beer bottles into stone walls in the background, keeping sharp edges present while a smooth bass line bobs around in the vein of Sleaford Mods for four minutes (a lengthy time stamp considering this is an album full of two-minute songs). Yet, despite the throat-ripping howl on “Garbage” and the jettisoned theatrics on “Need You”, Royal Headache are mild-tempered punk. There’s no moshing, guitar screeching, or patch-adorned back turned to your face. The quartet are inviting and well-mannered, joining the likes of The Menzingers and Sheer Mag with a mod touch.
When these songs blast out of speakers, there comes a realization that they should be heard live. High swells with sweaty romance. Throughout, Shogun sings of failed love attempts and pining for affection. Royal Headache are a live band drained of their spirit on record, and High suffers from that even more so given it’s meant to be experienced as a separated couple within the same room. For the album’s slower songs, however, the production can help. Soulful keys strike up an outdoor prom feel on “Wouldn’t You Know”, a slower number for those eager to flash the freshly wounded heart on their sleeve.
When anyone splits from a band, there’s a question of heart. Music is fueled by passion no matter the genre. It’s simply too taxing to pursue if your heart isn’t constantly repairing its armor. It’s unclear what wasn’t working anymore — or, rather, what Shogun found lacking enough to step away — other than a general draining of spirit from the music industry. Shogun, who’s responsible for separating Royal Headache from the rest of the punk pile thanks to his vocals, isn’t needed anymore. On High, Royal Headache’s spirit comes from their own instrumentation, not Shogun’s flair, suggesting they’ve had the passion all along. It turns out they were right to push through the breakup, but a few bleak songs dampen the high they’re chasing after as a result.
Essential Tracks: “Another World”, “Garbage”