What separates a good punk band from a bad one? How does a two-person band succeed? Where did they get all that hair?
These are the questions that come to mind when checking out the Chicago punk rock duo White Mystery. Singer/guitarist Miss Alex White and her brother/drummer Francis Scott Key White produce a wailing thrash of Velvet Underground meets AC/DC. Lyrically, their songs range from the one-word “No!” to the 306 word paragraph that is “Dubble Dragon.” Scan your eyes over their lyrics page and watch as phrases like “Rotting pigs swing,” “Severe pain, excruciate, carve out my insides,” and “Ragnarok Earth Inferno burn to death from my mighty dynamite blast” jump out at you.
Punk music was born out of a desire to express and relate. One of punk’s early defining traits was its simple, brutal honesty (The Ramones songs are mostly about having crushes on girls and riding around in cars). Another early defining trait of punk was that it was not nearly so important to be good at your instrument. Both of these things could be applied to White Mystery. The attitude is certainly there, but so is the sloppiness. In a genre that celebrates raw emotion and power over technical artistry this can be OK, and at times for White Mystery, it is. How much of the time depends on how committed you are to what they are doing.
What they are doing has to do with their concept. Not all acts have a concept, but when they do, it can help fill out areas of their music that would be lacking otherwise (see Lady GaGa). This is especially important in instrumental duos. When there are only two people, a greater percentage of band responsibility falls on each members’ head. A concept can help alleviate some of this stress, an idea bearing the burden for the band. Look at The White Stripes. Jack White is a future member of the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He shreds, sings like a mofo, and adds a dense cloud of mystery to whatever room he’s in. But Meg White is not on his level. When it comes down to it, she’s just not that good at drums. But the White Stripes are still arguably the most important rock duo ever. This is because of Jack White’s concept. As he discusses in the documentary “Under Great White Northern Lights,” White sought to place himself within a creative boundary. By operating under the pre-established notions of Rock ‘n Roll, backed only by basic drum parts, White set musical limits on what the band would sound like. This forced him to be more creative within these boundaries, and to come up with absolutely face-melting songs. Meg White doesn’t hold Jack back, because he is not moving in that direction.
White Mystery absolutely has a concept. Their lyrics are consistently thematic, and their image is complete. If there’s anyone that doesn’t believe that, just watch the trailer for their feature length film, “That Was Awesome.” But duos don’t need a concept to survive. Look at Death From Above 1979 or Shovels and Rope. These bands are good musicians making good music. Sometimes if a musician is good enough, they can even carry a not so good one (I’m lookin’ at you The Black Keys). When this doesn’t hold true, a question must be asked; does the validity of their concept outweigh the musical failings? The answer for White Mystery is yes, but not by a lot, and certainly not for everyone. Some will love it, those drawn to noise rock and raw punk. The feminine power and unabashed weirdness will immediately pull in others. But some will not be able to get past the simplistic musical structures and performances.
In an interview with SheShredsMag.com, Francis explained (surprisingly soft-spokenly) their band’s goal; “We’re trying to reach nirvana, and the best way that we know how is to do what we love, and hopefully inspire others to do so as well.” This draws attention to the best and most valid aspect of White Mystery—their attitude. Alex and Francis have put themselves into the musical world in such a thoroughly bizarre way that it’s hard not to respect them. Their strange look and sound are initially jarring, but then deeply endearing. They will not be ashamed of what they are, and that is a beautiful thing.