Of all the possible announcements containing the phrase, “we’re putting the band back together,” I had always hoped the day would come when we got to hear those words from the Galactic Cowboys. Me and the GC go back a long way. They have been my go-to recommendation when I’ve been trying to turn someone on to a band they might not have heard before. I’ve often found myself telling people that they “should have been massive;” while explaining how I first picked up a copy of their Space in Your Face album on cassette at a second-hand music exchange back in ’93.
For the uninitiated, the Galactic Cowboys are a Texan heavy rock band who began their commercial career in the very early nineties as a signing to Geffen records. The two albums they released for that label showcased a band brimming with influences. They could effortlessly set thrash metal riffs into progressive arrangements but most significantly of all, their signature move was to pepper layer upon layer of melodic harmonies throughout their songs. The result was a unique sound for the time that was rich in melody and slamming riffs. Imagine Anthrax playing the Beatles and you’ve made a start but you still haven’t quite captured the panorama of influences at play. On the flip side, for all there is to enjoy about the variety of sounds on offer, it’s probably fair to point out that this is the very thing that sealed the limit to their broader appeal. As with anything that doesn’t fit neatly into clearly defined, marketable boxes, the salesmen had a challenge to focus their efforts and convince a record buying public to get on board. Too heavy for the rock fans and too poppy for the head-bangers, the Galactic Cowboys sat somewhere in the middle as a bit of a curiosity. The brave and the bold would be rewarded with some excellent music, but for the rest of the kids, grunge was just around the corner and this was a much more clearly defined bandwagon to jump on.
Another factor to consider is there were always whispers on the scene that the Cowboys were a Christian rock band. In a genre that is generally considered from the outside to be the “devils music;” (a suggestion that is largely subscribed to and supported by metal fans) one only has to look at the volume of satanic imagery, skulls and occult references within rock & roll to understand that being openly Christian in heavy metal is akin to announcing in polite society that you are betrothed to marry your cousin. It is likely you will be given a wide berth. It is worth mentioning that unless I am missing something glaringly obvious, I haven’t experienced anything overtly faith orientated on a Galactic Cowboys record, so whatever the personal beliefs of the band it doesn’t seem to carry over into the music in any significant way. At a stretch, their lyrics can be reflective, introspective and offer an existentialist viewpoint, from which I guess we can draw our own conclusions.
Whether these things were an influence or not, The Galactic Cowboys were dropped from their major label and were ultimately left to carry on carving out a career on the back of several releases for Metal Blade before disbanding after their 2000 album, Let it go. They evolved into a less hard hitting band and moved away from the thrash metal element of their sound. They still had the riffs and the melodies; they added a touch of psychedelic pop but didn’t lose the progressive element of their sound. Their latter day records are all worth playing, however, for many (this writer included) it is those first two albums that really hold an enduring appeal and this is what brings us right up to date because it is the original line up of Monty Colvin, Alan Doss, Ben Huggins and Dane Sonnier who have regrouped this year to put out new music.
It is fitting for a band who have spent much of their running time among the stars (Pump Up the Space Suit, Ranch on Mars, Sea of Tranquillity) that this album’s opening track plays like an invitation to join the boys on another space mission. As the album title confirms, it’s a Long Way Back to the Moon but we are starting with a steady ascent. Measured and surefooted, Among the Clouds doesn’t go for it at full thrust. Instead, it’s the sound of a band dusting off their old spaceship and making final checks to ensure everything is in working order. Filthy overdriven bass?.. Engage. Crunchy guitar tone?.. Check. The drums are keeping us level and vocalist, Ben Huggins reminds us that he is about to take us on a trip before switching on the aural equivalent of a galactic hyper-drive. It is in that moment, when the familiar, layered harmonies kick in that we can feel the gravitational pull of the Earth subside and we re-establish our trust in the Cowboys to navigate us safely beyond the Milky Way. I am strapped in and ready for the ride.
Internal Masquerade continues our ascent and is the sound of the engines really warming up. Sonnier chugs us through the verses, teasing harmonics out of his guitar and you get the feeling he is beginning to get his riff on. Something he finally resolves on Blood in my Eyes, which features the album’s first really weighty moment via a rolling, staccato riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on Helmet’s Betty record. This third track feels like a tipping point. The band have pulled together all the things that make them so unique and it seems they can go anywhere from here. This includes a head-nodding, disco bounce courtesy of Next Joke . This song sounds like it will be an absolute riot live. The verses pulse along like classic Kiss but with a rougher edge. The chorus nudges us towards White Zombie territory and gives us a moment of pure Galactic Cowboys with its cheeky, cynical refrain which is clearly a nod to the wannabe celebrity/X-factor generation: “The sky is the limit, when you put your mind to it you can be anything you want – Next joke!”
The sense of fun continues on Zombies, which is a fast paced, punk infused, driving thrash-out about a hopeless battle with the undead. What would you do if you found your one true love on the final day of the apocalypse? “Together we will survive, even if it’s only for one night!” It’s a head’s down, horns up chest beater of a song. It’s full of humour, which is something the Galactic Cowboys do well. However, they don’t limit themselves to this and the middle of the album is given over to reflective stand point. It’s also where the more progressive elements of their song writing can be found. Longer arrangements and soaring choruses, Drama and Amisarewas are both lyrically speaking, focussed on the real world, relationships, life and humanity. It is ironic that on an album named after the expanse of weightlessness between the Earth and the moon, this paring of songs should have such gravity. Ben puts in a fantastic vocal performance and we are reacquainted with the sound of the Cowboys at their most grandiose.
It is worth mentioning that the quartet achieves such an epic sound despite what I assume to be a small production budget. If there are any flaws to be drawn out of this recording, I would highlight that it has a quite contained and dry production sound. While that doesn’t take anything away from the song-writing and to be completely fair, the sound of LWBTTM is consistent with their post Geffen, Metal Blade output; I am left with a slight niggle that it doesn’t have the aural muscle of those first two albums. It’s more Machine Fish than Space in your Face but that’s only from a sonic perspective. Song wise, this material could sit quite comfortably among their classics. Hate Me demonstrates this perfectly with its hard-edged riffing and Alan Doss getting busy on the double bass drums. It’s a return to the thrashier sound of those early records and is the first of the final three heavier tracks. The second is Losing Ourselves which slows the tempo and delivers a heavy metal stomp with a classic, rousing Cowboys chorus. From there, one of the album’s heaviest riffs has been reserved for the penultimate track; Agenda. This outsiders anthem chugs along, shifting back and forth to half time and climbing through a chord progression that eventually leads us into a crushing progressive riff with all the necessary weight behind it to give a seasoned head-banger neck ache! Horns up, people.
If we return to the idea that this album has been a wild flight through the stars, then we are left with one last tune to take us back down, through our descent as we return to Earth. It is during this final, poignant track that we discover the Long Way Back to the Moon refers to the distance travelled from the comfort of simpler times. Monty (who takes the lead vocal on this song) talks about “floating weightless” and trying to remember how he “used to fly.” I have no doubt many listeners could relate to the lyrics, “Stress, struggle, crashing rubble…” and the need to “go back home to where I used to live” because you are “tired and sick of this.” Tellingly, there is a reference to the Cowboy’s own journey as he sings, “It’s been a long, long time since I had a Ranch on Mars” and we are left feeling that this reunion represents something more important than a new set of songs.
I for one, hope it lasts.
Mission control to Galactic Cowboys: Welcome home. It’s good to have you back.