When listening to the fourth album by Georgian sludge band Harvey Milk, you may be struck by a faint sense of familiarity, and it won't have anything to do with whether you've heard their early work. The first two Harvey Milk albums, My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be (1994) and Courtesy And Good Will Toward Men (1995) aren't much like Special Wishes. They are both over an hour long each, and feel like it, too. They drag on intentionally, with abundant empty space and achingly drawn-out chords. The Pleaser was their third album, and was a experiment in classic-style rock. Then, in 1998, the band broke up.
When they reformed in 2006 and released Special Wishes, fans could easily detect a difference in the sound. All the heavy, slow dragging from the early days had returned, but had somehow been injected with a solid dose of hard rock. Like in The Pleaser, these songs actually had fairly standard structures. The most obvious musical influence was that of Melvins, but there's some High on Fire, some Earth, and some Thrones in there too. And who is the one man who has been a member in each of those groups? None other than Joe Preston, who would actually be a Harvey Milk member a few year later for their next album. Special Wishes was finished before that aquisition was made, but Life... The Best Game in Town and Special Wishes are pretty similar-sounding albums, and for a long time I was sure I heard Preston on a few songs.
Creston Spiers is the band's vocalist and guitarist, and unlike the album My Love is Higher... where he barely says a word, Special Wishes features vocals prominently on every track but one. His voice is rough, but not quite in the Tom Waits/Lemmy Kilmister area. Hoarse, yawning howls open up the album on track one, "I've Got A Love," and the guitar and bass is melted together in an identical low growl. The first two tracks are not going to attract those in search of gentle singing, but Speirs has a warm, surprisingly pleasant voice underneath the grit. You can hear it in the song "Mothers Day" which closes the album, and "Old Glory", which precedes that one.
Speirs is versatile enough to fit into whichever guitar style is adopted on the album, and there are plenty of different styles on Special Wishes. The track "Instrumental" reminds me of Primus' "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver", and some of the guitar solos sound a bit like something in a Lynyrd Skynyrd song. I like to think of these as intentional references, as if the music is guiding the listener past recognizable landmarks while making its own journey.
This was the first Harvey Milk album I heard, and it's still my favourite of theirs. The diversity of styles makes it hard to categorize it beyond hard rock, though that seems like such a dull label to give such interesting music. An element of humour occasionally bubbles up, most noticeably in the last song, "Mothers Day". Mother's Day as a topic for a song is extremely out of place on this album. The songs "War" or "Crush Them All" aren't likely to be ones your kind, sweet mother would enjoy. The simple well-wishing lyrics start out sounding sincere, but as they are repeated and the singing gets louder and angrier, the sentiment is either trampled or completely overblown.
1. I've Got a Love (3:44)
2. War (3:12)
3. Crush Them All (5:28)
4. Once in a While (3:22)
5. Instrumental (3:22)
6. The End (3:53)
7. Love Swing (6:04)
8. Old Glory (4:20)
9. Mothers Day (8:39)
Because it's hard to pigeonhole, Special Wishes is also hard to recommend. To get the most out of this album, you'll need to be able to listen to the heaviest metal around without flinching. The band can get experimental, and to enjoy experimental music, one should be familiar with the type of music being experimented on. Harvey Milk treats doom metal like pop music, in that the dark, oppressive, buzzing guitars are to be easily accepted as pleasing sounds to play around with. That's fine for metalheads, but Special Wishes might be a bit too much for someone looking for simple rock. Or it could be a gateway into metal. In any case, I say go for it.
Special Wishes - Harvey Milk - 2006 - Troubleman