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The Rock ’n’ Roll Dreams of White Reaper

They aren’t like the hedonistic guitar gods of yesterday, but they radiate power-pop joy with their big hooks and bigger solos

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Forgive me for this, but real quick we need to jump back in the pool with Chris Holmes, then lead guitarist for heavy metal gods W.A.S.P., as he conducts one of the more harrowing (and rock ’n’ roll) interviews in film history. Say hello to the drunkest man who ever lived, and yes, harrowing as this infamous clip from Penelope Spheeris’s 1988 L.A. music documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years might be, this is ultimately a tale of survival, for the man and, even more improbably, for the rock ’n’ roll ethos that tried to kill him.

Anyway, yikes. “I’m a full-blown alcoholic,” Holmes concedes, slurring cordially. He estimates that he drinks five pints of vodka a day, although: “Five quarts? Pints? Who cares? Yeah, I’m a happy camper. Hah-hah!” He blames, or rather credits, rock ’n’ roll for this: “If you can tour one year, it’ll take four years off your life.” There is a Santa glass in the cupholder of his pool chair; his mother is sitting poolside, terrified and resigned and making the most viscerally upsetting face in ’80s cinema, non–Large Marge category.

“Do you think you might be covering up some pain?” Holmes’s interviewer wonders, and he responds by cracking open a vodka bottle and pouring half of it in his mouth, and half of the rest in the general vicinity of his face. “I don’t dig being the person I am,” he concludes, struggling to elaborate. “I just don’t like it. Being who I am, it’s just like—here, watch.” And then he rolls into the pool. Cut back to his mother, still making The Face.

I mention this because a gentleman named Ryan Hater, who plays keyboards in the young Louisville, Kentucky, rock band White Reaper, evidently found it quite inspiring. “What’s his name in the pool with the vodka, and his mom is there, and he’s just talking about how he wants to be dead?” Hater mused during a July interview with Michael Tedder for Stereogum. “That made me want to be a musician.” The urge to rock ’n’ roll, in 2019 as in 1988 as in 1967, is a fundamentally self-destructive impulse. A roaring bonfire fueled by the bodies of knuckleheads, warming the bodies of other knuckleheads. A healthy death drive is a necessary component of keeping this music alive.

White Reaper, to be clear, sound very little like W.A.S.P.: The quintet instead radiates a vulnerable sort of power-pop joy, all ’70s-muscle-T dual-guitar leads and righteous solos and hooks with the searing ardor of molten lava and the sticky-sweet naivete of cotton candy. The affable goofiness that first made Weezer famous, the shrewd and ebullient laser precision that makes the New Pornographers the best power-pop band of their generation, the righteous six-string-as-six-shooter audacity of fellow young rockers Sheer Mag. It’s arena-rock cosplay, sure, but every ambitious rock band is basically doing arena-rock cosplay until they actually, y’know, tour arenas. Think of White Reaper as Judas Priest disciples who steadfastly obey the law. These fellas don’t sound too drunk, either. But you’ll recognize their jovial-hedonist vibe immediately.

It is ideal, in this day and age, to approach this style of Zippo-flicking guitar music with, if not irony, then at least some measure of cornball self-awareness: White Reaper’s 2015 full-length debut was called White Reaper Does It Again, which is the second-funniest album title in their brief catalog, after 2017’s The World’s Best American Band. “Rally up and dress to kill / Lace your boots and crush your pills,” the title track’s chorus begins, amid fake crowd noise that cements the mass-romantic Cheap Trick vibe. “Run around and tell the gang / Polish up your dusty fangs.” It’s an electrifying feeling, even if they’re the sort of cuddly band Mom can bring home to you.

On Friday, White Reaper released their third and best LP, You Deserve Love. I have had “Might Be Right”—the carefree bounce of the bass line, the prehistoric power-chord roar of the chorus, the thwarted lust of the lyrics, the dual-guitar riff with the richness and depth of a particularly well-thought-out Dungeons & Dragons campaign—stuck in my head for, like, three weeks. I’m a happy camper.

You can’t talk about songs like this in 2019 without agonizing over the relative absence of songs like this in 2019. “The raw, guitar-rock sound is really—I don’t want to say it’s done, but ...” So equivocated Mike Kaplan, program director of New York City’s ALT 92.3, quoted in Joe Coscarelli’s recent New York Times piece about Mike’s job running an alternative-rock station. Even this genre’s professional champions can’t be much bothered to champion it anymore. “It’s present, but it’s morphed and mixed with other instrumentation,” Kaplan added. “Does anyone really go to Guitar Center anymore and pick up the guitar?”

Thanks for your insight, Mike. I first heard “Might Be Right” on my own hometown alt-rock station, Columbus, Ohio’s beloved independent institution CD102.5, which, like the NYC alt-rock station, will only mess with Lana Del Rey if she’s covering Sublime, and unlike the NYC alt-rock station will give Billie Eilish a shot, and like any alt-rock station anywhere leans as much toward Passion Pit–style synth-pop as anything guitar-oriented. I love it. And I’m also relieved that White Reaper’s album title wasn’t The World’s Last American Band.

It is tempting to process the relentless screwball joy of You Deserve Love—the righteous airbrushed-van gallop of “Raw,” the bright New Wave strut of “1F”—entirely through nostalgia for the alt-rock 1990s nostalgia for the sleaze-rock 1970s. But the joy is in living vicariously through the 20-something White Reaper dudes themselves. This is all new to them, and that’s palpable even if this is all old hat to you. “How come what you want and what you get / Always seem to be / Two different things?” singer-guitarist Tony Esposito sings on “Real Long Time,” and this is not the most profound and groundbreaking lyrical observation someone will make in 2019. But there is profundity in looking on as the zillionth guitar-rocker in the zillionth excellent guitar-rock band figures this stuff out for himself.

Chris Holmes, by the way, is still alive, and 20-plus-years sober, and roughly 124 years old in touring years, and a good enough sport that in 2017 he did another pool interview that mostly concerned his wonderment at having escaped the downward spiral implied by his first pool interview. “Why do I not drink anymore? After six DUIs, they throw you in jail,” he explained, cordial as ever. “And it’s really hard to drink in jail.”

That observation, also, is more profound than it might first appear. Holmes’s continued existence is as stirring a testament to rock ’n’ roll defiance as anything he said or did or drank in his, uh, prime. White Reaper are not exactly self-annihilating wildmen, on paper or on record. But the desire is there, and that’s reassuringly defiant, too.