Note: NPR’s First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
When the Brooklyn trio Highly Suspect played the Grammys in February, it had a lot of viewers scratching their heads. The band’s performance of “Lydia,” the lead single from 2015’s Mister Asylum, wasn’t particularly innovative or exciting; apart from an exhilaratingly abrasive squall of noise from singer-guitarist Johnny Stevens, the song fell squarely into the area between the grunge revival and the garage-rock revival, all vein-popping angst and gutsy snarl. Mostly, people were asking themselves, “Who are these guys?” — and also, “How did an unknown band whose first album came out just a few months ago score nods for Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song?”
To answer the first question: Highly Suspect came together playing covers as a bar band in Cape Cod, where Stevens and twin brothers Rich and Ryan Meyer (on bass and drums, respectively) had been friends in high school. From there, they moved to Brooklyn and got signed. And that’s about the whole story. What’s more remarkable is that Mister Asylum captured the ears of the Grammys — and that its follow-up, The Boy Who Died Wolf, may be poised to push the band far wider. “Serotonia,” the album’s first single, rides on an edgy-yet-fluid riff that hints at the group’s early days playing Jimi Hendrix classics. Smoldering, bluesy and subtle, it’s an odd choice for a single — and Stevens’ opening line, “I wish that everyone I knew was dead / So that I’d never have to pick up the phone,” isn’t exactly the stuff of which jingles are made. Like Queens Of The Stone Age at its sludgiest, “Serotonia” feels far more organic and atmospheric — right down to the epic, Pink Floyd-esque solo. That atmosphere doesn’t work as well in “Send Me An Angel,” a forgettable cover of Real Life’s ’80s hit, but Stevens and crew get points for tackling it with slinkiness and gusto.
In recent interviews, the members of Highly Suspect have made no apologies for their embrace of the sex-drugs-and-rock-‘n’-roll cliché, nor do they have a problem with being pegged as a throwback to the mainstream grunge of the ’90s. That said, there’s more to The Boy Who Died Wolf than brooding attitude or warmed-over Bush riffs. “My Name Is Human” is raw and nervy, paced slowly and saturated in Soundgarden-like menace. There’s no small amount of Nirvana lurking inside “Little One” — the track’s eerily strummed intro pays bracing tribute to the darkness of In Utero — although on the other hand, “Chicago” is a bare-bones, piano-driven confessional wreathed in smoke and memory. It all makes for a monolithically moody experience. Thankfully, the band is smart enough to break it up with barnstorming grunge-punk gems such as “Look Alive, Stay Alive” and pummeling, hook-packed rockers like “Postres.”
Coming off a couple of precocious Grammy nominations, the trio has a lot to live up to. Not that the band is entirely an underdog. Like Mister Asylum, the new album is backed by heavyweight label muscle, but fans get the final say: Will Highly Suspect become the next breakout success à la Kings Of Leon or Imagine Dragons, or will it be a blip? Either way, one thing is already certain: With The Boy Who Died Wolf, Stevens and the Meyer twins have taken a big step toward fine-tuning their retro-grunge attack into something far more dynamic, soulful and alluring.