A Case of Scarlet Fever You’re Going to WANT to Catch – Escarlatina Obsessiva’s “Drusba”

Escarlatina Obsessiva
Drusba
self (digital) / Mass Media

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There are at least a handful of things about Escarlatina Obsessiva that surprise. One is their name, both jarringly direct and lyrical, a mouthful that, regardless of meaning ‘Obsessive scarlet fever,’ falls on the ears like poetry. Another is where they’re from. São Thome das Letras is in Brazil (which is not a surprise; Brazil’s rich and varied post-punk vein is still as edgy, vital, and crazy active as it’s been since first being mined in the mid-80’s), the northerly, inland, roughly equidistant point of a triangle made with the coastal colossi of São Paulo and Rio but consisting of only 6700 souls, a relatively sleepy number from which one wouldn’t normally expect a sound this fierce and accomplished to emerge. Then there’s the fact that there’s only two of them making this larger-than-life noise, Karolina Escarlatina on vocals and bass, Zaf guitar, keyboards and electronic drums. Lastly, there’s the nature of that sound and how it’s developed in time for the release of Drusba, their (depending how you count) sixth full-length.

Now, it would be a mistake of some magnitude to derive from that last statement that the music of EO, as this writer has ever heard it, has at any time since Chants of Lethe in 2007 been anything less than compelling, spilling an urgency and, well, obsessiveness enough to honor – and join the ranks of – the many legendary legacies, Brazilian and otherwise, from which they draw inspiration. The band have always caught their listeners’ attention and caught it quickly. It’s just that on Drusba there appears to have been a profound gelling of intention, drive, and execution, producing as a result a piece of work that coalesces into one of those singular albums that surpasses the sum of the band’s previous efforts even as it absorbs and repurposes them. When singer Karolina sent me the download I had, based on my experience with them, very strong expectations. I was excited. In the opening moments, as the grabbing intro to the title track unspooled like a thing uncaged, prowling, exuberant (it’s a full minute before the vocal kicks in) and a-burst with such playerful confidence I’m more than half tempted to compare it to the famous first moments of Rock and Roll Animal, those expectations exploded into the adrenaline of joy. I wasn’t excited anymore, I was thrilled. Zaf’s guitar is on a controlled-but-feral patrol, an organ hangs a loitering tone in the air eerie as a bright morning fog, drums sound on the fulcrummed punch of cymbals and flailing limbs and Karolina’s bass, which has always held its prominence in EO recordings, is now the growlingly precise master of the underworld, a gift of its own making which never abates album long. Kicker? When that vocal arrives the guitar slips into the background and a trampling, music hall piano reminiscent of early Split Enz trips into the picture and I ask you, how confident is that, especially as it works so charmingly well the song would be greatly diminished without it. All this, when stitched inside a boastfully natural arrangement and produced with a booming prowess that suggests the ghost of Colin Thurston nipped down to Brazil for a working holiday, makes for some bracingly marvelous listening.

And it doesn’t stop. For a whopping, modern-day miracle 68 minutes they keep up the pace and the unrelentingly full-blooded quality, the elements throughout continuing to throng and merge into tracks that, simply, slay. You know that feeling when you go back and listen to, say, “Hong Kong Garden” or “Shot By Both Sides” or “Map Ref. 41°n 93°w” or any of the other countless examples and you get that welling sense of chest-expanding, life-confirming fulfillment that can have you lurching agelessly about while muttering anew in your ecstasy as have hundreds of times before ‘I can’t believe how good this is!’? That happened just about everywhere for me while listening to Drusba. At the risk of almost criminal understatement, these songs satisfy.

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Take “Poisoned Water.” Nearly six minutes long and a possible personal favorite (which is at least an irresponsible thing to say and likely ridiculous), it starts at what seems frantic mid-stride, Karolina and the pounded downbeat meeting in the very first millisecond with some wild mercury guitar chording until a full four measures later they’re met by a bass that finally, as was inevitable, rises gloriously into Magazine territory, late-70’s Barry Adamson being channeled with such force one has to imagine he feels a twinge invade his dreams every time it’s played, which if true means he’s not been getting very restful sleep lately as I’ve been playing the hell out of it. Regardless of that, the track remains without question an Escarlatina Obsessiva song, I couldn’t at this point mistake it for anyone else, especially as it flips it up a notch and enters some level of punked-up post-punk stratosphere before detouring once again into a sidelong breathless coda that further ensures the provenance of their authorship. Quite the stormer indeed but then, again, that’s just the story of this record.

Even when you suspect the pair have maybe taken an ill-advised turn, such as the still tightly-coiled venture into reggae at the outset of “Lions of Stone” (I’m no reggae-basher, quite the opposite; it just doesn’t always work), up springs that nimble rumbling bass, the drums jump into a double-quick pick-me-up and we’re in a whole ‘nother world, one where the jah essence still punctuates the middle eight and layers some horns in the final section but has otherwise been jettisoned in favor of a romp that powers along like some combination of Siekiera and Terrible Feelings fronted by Siouxsie. As missteps go it’s both trivially minor (and anyway redeemed to the point of erasure) and exceedingly rare. Let’s take a quick tour.

“Tiny Boat” suggests the muscular delicacy of Affectionate Punch-era Associates, you can almost hear a young Alan Rankine scheming back there in the mix, “In Athens With A Lamp,” from its classic rocker cadence to the synth’s lonely cinematic rhapsody to (again) the bass’s Strangleresque perfection to interplay vocals that include the lyric “shadowplay eyes” among other sharply dark turns, may be the album’s most fully-realized track, while “Deny! Deny!,” even with (or because of) the mid-8o’s MTV-tinged sonic dream it opens with, manages to simultaneously rank as Drusba‘s most unashamed stab at single-ready accessibility and remind of, say, Berlin’s sleazier pop corners a la Das Fluff. “Eurydice” is the bruised post-punk soul dragged toward the Poison Girls and merrily force-fed some of that music hall piano, “Cry Crocodile” is a piece of lullaby synth-pop criss-crossed by seriously jagged shadow, the punchy “Bodies That Devour,” carnival goth guitar and a carroming tempo that’s like hypnotism at 45 RPM while a Roxy/Deaf School/Sparks element goes slinking underneath like an art school minx, is easy second-single material, “Mad Girl Singing” sees the band take a grand romantic turn, planting a flag somewhere between Toyah and Kate Bush, the 7+ minute “Minotaur Maze” taking its place as album opus, navigating along its shape-shifting path with a snake fluidity and daring authority, never faltering.

You get the idea.

Drusba was only recently released digitally (available for free here) but there’s a date-to-be-announced LP mooted from Mass Media this spring and it can’t come soon enough, as the world’s droolingly eager for this one even as they don’t know it. In my own fevered heart I’m hoping said label release will propel them on to a US tour. Of course, if they’re half this good live I’m not sure I’d survive at my advanced age but y’know what, to hell with it, I’d rather die trying.