Bully don’t ease you into their debut album Feels Like. Not one bit. They announce their relentless raw sound with fierce snare hits in the opening seconds before breaking out into a blistering pace, and singer Alicia Bognanno announces her presence recalling “I remember getting too f***ed up, and I remember throwing up in your car” (“I Remember“). It’s by far one of the most truthful first impressions that a band will give you. This is who Bully is. They’re staring you straight in the eyes and eschew gimmicks for a real experience, and if you can’t handle it, then you’re made of softer stuff than you’ve thought.
Really, this is all down to frontwoman Bognanno. A few years ago, after moving from Minnesota to Nashville to study audio engineering, she worked her way into a dream internship at legendary producer Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio complex in Chicago. This is the man behind some 1500 albums – and that’s only a rough guess of his, and a guess from way back in 2004 – but most notably, the man behind Nirvana’s tour de force In Utero. It was Albini’s preferred recording method of capturing a band live that was responsible for the album’s visceral and raw sound.
This rubbed off on Bognanno who co-engineered and mixed Feels Like with that same approach, and it gives the whole thing that same infectious red-hot energy and bristling emotion. That’s not where the Nirvana connection stops though; while Bully have infused their fuzz with a bit more melody and a bit more candy pop, those moments where Bognanno is screaming her lungs out are eerily similar to Kurt Cobain. You can virtually grab a hold of all the things those screams consist of: some pain, some anguish, some anger, and some disgust. The screams act as a powerful catharsis for Bognanno, just as they did for Cobain, and just as they did for Nirvana, they add that ironic fragility to the hard sound of Bully.
It’s safe to say, in light of lyrical evidence, that even without her stint at Albini’s studio, she very likely would’ve approached recording her band’s debut album in the no-frills way that she has. There’s just too much baggage that she’s carrying around for her not to do so. She’s been hardened by it all, and doesn’t feel the need to sugar-coat any of it, so why smother the sound in over-production.
Some of that baggage: “Trying to hide from my mind, trying all the time” (“Trying“), “it’s magic how you make me feel like trash” (“Trash“), “I would never make you feel the way some people have made me feel” (“Six“). And here’s the kicker: “I thought that he would never hit a girl, but I guess you never know, and that’s the world” (“Reason“). It makes those screams that much more poignant doesn’t it? And the similarities between her and Cobain become even more striking don’t they?
So this is Bully. And this is their debut Feels Like. That album title might now make a bit more sense. Or, better said, the fact that it’s essentially an unfinished thought might make a bit more sense. What’s the end to that thought floating out there? Only Alicia Bognanno has the answer to that, and there’s a good chance that it changes from day to day, depending on what bubbles to the surface of the emotional melting pot that swirls around within her. Thankfully she hasn’t let it drown her. Instead she’s funnelled it all out of her, and it makes for a riveting, uncompromising, brash and raw listen. It feels like truthful music.
Bully’s Feel Like is out now via Columbia Records, purchase it here.
Words by Oli Kuscher