Before Is This It or White Blood Cells was the debut from an even more mysterious Swedish quintet that dressed like Shriners sans fez
“Garage-rock” was a funny catch-all that somehow worked at a time when alt-rock needed a rebrand. But the main thing these bands had in common is that they had good taste and a dress code.
The Strokes were defined by ennui (and so’s their new album) and jean jackets. They had enough Lou Reed and Moe Tucker in their grooves to bridge a nostalgia chasm. But were the Velvets a garage band? Then you had the White Stripes, red-and-black clad walking encyclopedias of Detroit Rock City, from Motown to Iggy, with an even greater connection to the Delta, Son House covers and downhome affectations and the pseudo-incestuous self-mythology of ex-spouses who called each other brother and sister. Sartorial mandates notwithstanding, Jack and Meg mostly got over on Real Love of Music and all the fetishism that comes with it: virtuoso playing, analog recording, recording booths that spit out instant vinyl pressings like Polaroids.
But before Is This It or White Blood Cells was Veni Vidi Vicious, from an even more mysterious Swedish quintet that dressed like Shriners sans fez. The Hives did not look like they’d ever been in a garage once. They did look like rock stars though, particularly Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist, the wild-eyed uncanny valley Mick Jagger in front, who lived up to his ridiculous moniker. (OTOH, the bassist they dubbed “Dr. Matt Destruction” looked like a furloughed Super Mario Brother.) It’s telling that Vicious was initially released in 2000 on punk imprint Epitaph before garage anything was a buzzword: it’s unquestionably a punk album. But with no emo, pop-punk, or hardcore links whatsoever, not even any apparent interest in romantic interest or sexual frustration, Veni Vidi Vicious was punk at its most broken-down and atomized, with primordial Iggy pretensions of its own, played at double speed. It was re-released in 2002 on an industry tea-leaves hunch and wielded an honest-to-god hit, “Hate to Say I Told You So,” an MTV2 staple with an insistent four-chord riff and the longest track time on the record.
VIDEO: The Hives “Hate To Say I Told You So”
The story mostly ends there, really. They made another record, 2004’s Tyrannosaurus Hives, that failed, and attempted to sell out with 2007’s The Black and White Album, which sank the last of their major-label dollars into Timbaland and the Neptunes and also failed. They’ve done nothing of note since. Presumably they still wear suits. But subtract the narrative and you’ll note that Veni Vidi Vicious and Tyrannosaurus Hives are simply two of the most exciting rock records ever made.
What’s not exciting is to try and explain why; only so many adjectives and metaphors are available to properly distinguish Almqvist’s pipe-bomb shriek of “Why me?” in the chorus of “Main Offender” or the frenzy of ants-under-skin drumming by Chris Dangerous on “Outsmarted.” They’re perfect albums in the technician’s sense, juxtaposing sharply hand-quantized robotic riff patterns with Almqvist’s combustible, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins-influenced vocal performances. Vicious is the far more beloved of the two, in part because its whiplash mishmash makes some sense. Squint and you’ll catch references to “16 Tons” and quite a bit of workforce jargon that could pass for class analysis, it’s not the album that named a single “Two-Timing Touch and Broken Bones” like anyone knows what that fucking means.
But the riffs are the Hives’ everything and for two “full-lengths” that could fit on one CD-R in five years, every power chord this band threaded together landed in the exact right target of impact, with breathtaking upright precision at blinding speed, with each record’s lone token slow-down every bit as loud and stage-stealing as the more decibel-oriented numbers: Vicious contributes a synthesized cover of Jerry Butler’s “Find Another Girl” that’s part Hawaiian, part “Hotline Bling” and part Jackie Wilson. Tyrannosaurus Hives’ “Diabolic Scheme” Almqvist dubbed a “violent ballad” and brought his Screamin’ Jay schtick full circle. They’re huge highlights right alongside “Statecontrol” and “Supply and Demand” and “No Pun Intended.”
Then there was more of a shrug than a backlash. Excepting a few last bursts of magic (“You Got It All… Wrong,” “Won’t Be Long”), the later records sucked, and plenty have argued that they didn’t have it in the first place. I’d say that on Veni Vidi Vicious and Tyrannosaurus Hives (never get tired of writing out those titles), the Hives constructed perfection so dead-on accurately that they didn’t know what to do afterward with a very limited form. That still puts them ahead of thousands of power-chord bands who never once unlocked the combination to the vault. I’d be surprised if they ever do find a second act; they just don’t have enough moods.
What they do have, and harnessed on Veni Vidi Vicious especially, is an essence, Iggy and Screamin’ Jay and the Stones extracted into a formula so infallible you might as well call it bubblegum. They went places with attitude, with pure ricocheting dynamics, and the mask of unflappable ego, that little other music has. (Hip-hop has, though, which maybe what attracted Timbaland and the Neptunes to their smarm-charms in the first place.) If you can imagine id run amok as careening, razor-sharp chord patterns rather than any kind of material or intellectual indulgences, you can enjoy this band beating you over the head with what an idiot you must be, in sub-half-hour slabs twice. They came, they saw, they conquered. Then they left.