I was talking with my wife a few weeks ago when I first got wind of this new Hives album, and I stumbled upon the fact that I was just as excited about a new Hives record in 2012 as I was in 2002. And that’s rare. Think about it. How many bands that you LOVED a decade ago are still in existence and still making records that remind you of why you loved them in the first place? I bet each of you could think of one or two, tops, and for me, the Hives are one of those select few. These Swedish garage rockers came to prominence in the Rolling Stone-dubbed “saviors of rock and roll” era of the early aughts along with the Strokes and the White Stripes (and to a much lesser degree, the Vines) and while the Hives had a couple popular singles (“Hate to Say I Told You So” especially) and landed a major label deal, they never achieved the level of fame and record sales in North America that I feel they deserved.
And the reason for that, in my opinion, is that they rock too hard for the masses. These well-dressed men were the most traditionally (in the '60s sense) “garage rock” of the 2000 pack: They look like British-Invasion-era Stones and have a frontman (Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist) who yelps and shakes it as well as Jagger; they strum catchy riffs with enough speed and grit to keep up with more conventionally-labeled “punk” bands; and they include more subversive pop elements like Devo-esque synths and drum machines to stretch their sound.
Let’s get on to Lex Hives. “Wait a Minute” is an obvious hit, with an undeniable drumbeat and the backing Hives repeating a catchy harmony of "Wait a minute now, wait a minute, wait a minute now," as Pelle goes from croon to howl, building the tune patiently to the finish. “Midnight Shifter” battles for the coveted spot of “Greg0rb’s Favorite Track,” featuring a killer sax countermelody adding to the Elvis/Jerry Lee Lewis groove, all polished off by the addictive chorus of "But if I do do do all I can / Tomorrow comes a chance!" “1000 Answers” has a bit of that '50s piano-slammin’ Little Richard thing goin’, though the keys are buried in the mix. It also has sweet bassy synths creepin’ in too; these guys can’t pick a decade to inhabit, and I love it. Single “Go Right Ahead” is a fantastic snapshot of The Hives and what they do best, rockin’ hard and fast, with a melodic and lyrical motive so simple it’s genius because it’s instantly singable yet never gets old. What takes it to the next level is the tenor/bari sax, droning underneath practically the whole damn song.
While a large dose of earworm rockers is a given on any Hives album, it’s also interesting to see what little twists and experiments they will try. On 2004’s Tyrannosaurus Hives they brought in heavier synth and new wave elements that merely peppered their earlier work, and successfully tried their hand at a soulful-yet-freaky ballad with “Diabolic Scheme.” “I Want More” is the ballad of sorts here, but only if you’d call “Back in Black” a ballad. It may one-up “Diabolic” in the down-tempo tune department, with stripped verses where Almqvist switches to a cool speaking voice over monks doing Greg0rbian chant. This accentuates the effect of the buzzing small-amp-cranked-too-high chords that hit, followed by sweet tinny guitar leads, handclaps and gang vocals. Whew.
Their last outing, 2007’s The Black and White Album, was their weirdest by far, partially because they actually let producers outside of themselves and their inner circle take part in the proceedings. Songs like “Giddy Up,” “Puppet on a String,” “T.H.E.H.I.V.E.S.” and interlude “A Stroll Through Hive Manor Corridors” covered new ground, but may have turned off a few old fans. Lex Hives ("Law of the Hives") pulls the reigns in just enough, and while it tries out new tricks like horns (duh, right?), stylistically it’s their most straight-up rockin’ since Veni Vedi Vicious. “Without the Money” is an interesting mid-album diversion, starting out like “I Put a Spell on You” and then dissolving to churning organ and vocals. Almqvist uses the song to show that he’s more than just a shouter, and when the drums come pounding, he climbs and climbs to the song’s apex.
The wait between Hives albums is grueling, but when you play 400 shows between releases, it’s understandable; you need to travel the world to conquer it. This album is the Hives achieving what they set out to do as school kids in an industrial Swedish town in 1993: become the world’s greatest rock band. With a perfect mix of fast catchy rockers, powerful yet not-too-slick production and a dash of experimentation, Lex Hives is not only the best Hives album, but the best garage rock record of the past 10 years.