By Shane Willenborg
Local Music Journalist
Artist: The Black and White Years
EP: Arthur #1
Release date: February 1, 2019
It’s been nearly five years since we heard anything from the Austin-based art rock outfit, The Black and White Years. Having released their last full length album in 2014, the band, led by singer/ songwriter Scott Butler, has been relatively reluctant to reveal when new material would be coming. That all changed in January when the band announced that they would be releasing a series of EPs, an album titled Less Awful, and even a video game by the same name.
This was big news to me, having been following this this band since their days collaborating with former Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison and generating waves at South by Southwest back in 2009. I attended their EP release concert on Feb. 1 at the Mohawk, Austin, and got an early taste of the new material from the EP Arthur #1.
Arthur #1 is somewhat of a return to form for The Black and White Years, harkening back to the Devo-inspired synth-pop style they made their debut with. The EP starts off strong with “Too Many Walls,” a synth-heavy romp that deals a healthy dose of social commentary on our country’s current political divisiveness and media oversaturation. “Too Many Walls” reminds me a lot of their first album in regard to theme, while also sounding more modern and mature than their previous work. The band’s familiar synthetic drum and bass as well as video game style synthesizers are all on display throughout this EP, but “Too Many Walls” displays how the band has become more competent with the use of electronic instruments over the years.
The band’s inspirations are on full display in the next track, “I Honor You Deeply.” with a bass riff that sounds straight out of a Devo tune and passionate lyrics that have become a Scott Butler trademark. The lyrics detail a delightfully campy romance that reminds me of several ’80s synth-pop bands while still managing to sound completely genuine and heartfelt. I think this is the essence of what the Black and White Years are striving to be. I’ve often heard this band described as “kinda cheesy” or “nerd rock” and I don’t dispute that, but there is a sense of personality and genuine passion behind everything this band puts out. I think the cheesiness this band is accused of works in their favor to create the charm that has kept me interested in this band for over 10 years.
“To Learn to Lose” is this EP’s highest point. While this tune certainly has all the calling cards of The Black and White years, it is a decidedly new sound for the band. Butler takes a looser cadence with his lyrics about his personal struggles with growing and “learning to be wrong gracefully” when it comes to relationships. This song really demonstrates the exciting new frontier for the Black and White Years, a more mellow and somber tone for a more mature band.
This tone is carried over into the next track, “Scotch Rocks #3,” in which Butler greets the listener with insights into his social awkwardness while the band produces a sort of neo-waltz that is easy to get lost in. Easily another gem on this EP, this track shows a more relatable side of the band’s lead singer while also driving the band into new territory and keeping it fresh after more than 10 years of making music.
The final tune on Arthur #1 seems to hint of the band’s future plans to release a video game in conjunction with their next full-length album. “Extra Lives” feels like it was ripped directly from an 8-bit Atari game and given a 21st century remaster. It is directly in line with the band’s style and it reminds me of their song “You Are a Dragon” from their first album, another song that calls back the early days of video game music with the use of 8-bit synthesizers.
This new EP explores new roads for the band while still staying true to their roots and pleasing fans of their early work. I’m appetent to see what else this band has to offer in the coming years, and I expect I’ll be impressed. 2019 is going to be a new chapter for The Black and White Years, and with the release of their first EP in years the band is decidedly stating, we are back and far from done.
Photo 1: Header photo
Image title: Arthur #1 EP artwork
Caption: Album artwork for the Arthur #1 EP
Alt text: A man with large, colorful hair and a bright green shirt standing in front of a moonlight city scene. The art is crudely drawn with colored pencils takes up the bottom right quadrant of the artwork. The top right simply displays the band’s name and EP title.
Description: The artwork for the EP Arthur #1. Hand drawn with colored pencil.
Image Credit: Band’s Facebook and website.
Photo 2: Body photo
Image title: Black and White Years performing live
Caption: The Black and White Years performing at the Mohawk, Austin for their EP release.
Alt text: Shaggy-haired bass player, John Aldridge focuses on his guitar while Scott Butler holds a barre chord and closes his eyes to sing. Stage lights Illuminate thickly bearder drummer Billy Potts, in back, as he watches Butler deliver his line to the audience. On the left, guitarist Landon Thompson steps forward toward the crowd on the far side of the stage.
Description: Landon Thompson (left), Scott Butler (middle), John Aldridge (right front), and Billy Potts (right back) performing on the outdoor stage of the Mohawk, Austin to promote the release of their new EP. February 1, 2019.
Image Credit: Shane Willenborg