People have been saying “rock is dead” since Kurt Cobain left us. Most of us know that sentiment isn’t true. Or is it? Or what if it was?
This is the question at the core of Ryan Allen’s new concept album “The Last Rock Band.” You see, back in February 2020, the idea that music would go away - at least the live, sweaty, visceral, loud, in your face kind - was unthinkable. Around this time, Ryan began work on what he thought would be the follow up to his band Extra Arms’ “Up From Here” - an emotional rollercoaster of a concept album that chronicled a major life change in all it’s messy, fucked-up glory. “Up From Here” came out at the tail end of 2019, and still feeling inspired, Ryan started playing around with the idea of following up one concept album with another. The question he asked himself was simple: “What if there was only 1 rock band left on earth?” If you reference the pop charts at the time, Jonas Brothers, Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato and Nicki Minaj were all sitting pretty at the top. Rock music was an afterthought. So it seemed feasible that, yeah, maybe one day every rock band would go the way of the dinosaur and we’d all be one AI simulation away from an algorithm writing banal pop hits to soundtrack our mundane lives for eternity. Probably not, but it was interesting to ponder - so the songwriting narrative began.
In the middle of February, Ryan was on a roll. The concept evolved and the songs started to not only chronicle the imagined demise of rock and roll and rock bands all together, but began to track Ryan’s discovery of rock music to begin with. If you’re going to talk about death, afterall, why not start with birth?
So here we are - Ryan trudging through a collection of new songs, trying to string a narrative together and - BAM - a global pandemic materializes to fuck everything up. Everything stopped. No more band practice. No more gigs. No more anything. Ryan’s vision of his new batch of existential and personal songs ending up as the next Extra Arms album vanished into thin air. He started to think that maybe writing an album about the death of rock and roll was some kind of weird premonition. So with no possibility of jamming in the foreseeable future, the whole thing got shelved.
Fast forward to April 2022. Extra Arms DID release an album in 2022 - not this one - but a completely different batch of songs called “What Is Even Happening Right Now?”. People loved it. But something kept nagging at Ryan. He’s not one to leave things unfinished. So with a little time on his hands, he decided “fuck it” and set out to finish “The Last Rock Band” himself, playing all the instruments to ensure that his vision would come to life. He headed into Big Sky Recording with engineer/producer Geoff Michael and the two got to work.
So what is this collection of songs, really? Well, first, yes, it’s a concept album. We covered that. But also think of it like a story in the form of a mixtape - with subject matter and genres hopping around like a sugar-addled kid with ADD. The record kicks off with “The Last Rock Band”, detailing the tale of a fictional rock band - the last one on Earth, in fact - driving across the country in hopes that somebody, anybody will listen to their songs. He jumps back to his own youth on “Discovery”, singing about hearing Public Enemy for the first time and figuring out how to play “Come As You Are” on guitar. Next is “Start a Band”, which does a great job capturing the spirit of getting together with your friends to make noise in the basement. “Like The Ramones” follows the fictional rock band as they begin their ascent to stardom, eschewing things like school for more important matters like signing autographs and racking up YouTube views. A left turn enters the picture on “Stop The Train” with the band running out of steam, contemplating the end. “Wrong Place Wrong Time” swoops in to push that agenda further, naming the vices of the road - and maybe some bad luck - as the possible reason the band just isn't working out. Everything comes crashing down on “Bought a Computer”, where the narrator decides to throw his guitars in the fire and buy a laptop to make music instead. “Second Act”, however, comes roaring back, as the narrator realizes maybe he wasn’t meant to be a DJ and that rocking is what he was born to do. The album starts to wind down with “We Have Returned” - an epic, multi-part song that finds our heroes reclaiming their crown not only as the last rock band, but maybe the best that ever lived. It all ends with “Because I Have To” - where Ryan himself jumps back in to let the listener know that as long as there are people like him around, rock music simply can’t die because he won’t allow it.
Along the way, Ryan plays with styles and sounds, with everything from classic rock stalwarts like the Who and Bowie showing up, to dabbling in space-country twang, punky Replacements-style barn burners, AC/DC riffage, and even a little bit of Depeche Mode-inspired synth pop. When he was a kid, much of Ryan’s favorite music was discovered on eclectic mixtapes made for him by friends or just taping things off the radio late at night. The intention was to have this record represent the same experience.
There’s a line in “The Last Rock Band” (the song) where Ryan sings “How can you live, if rock is dead?” It’s a great question, but after listening to this you already know the answer: You can’t. We need rock and rock needs us. Rock will never die as long as there are records around like this to keep giving it life.
Black Cassette /50