‘Fear of the Dawn’ Captures Jack White in His Ultimate Manic Excesses

Jack White produces content with such a prolificacy that it can seem like he is trying to single-handedly fill the gap left by rock ‘n’ roll’s general retreat from prominence in popular culture. His output with the White Stripes alone is enough to rightly honor and infuse new energy into the general rock format, but White goes well beyond, with his slew of other bands — the Dead Weather and the Raconteurs, his Third Man Records imprint, and,of course, his solo excursions. In a move of characteristic excess, he has two records slated for release this year under his own name. White has described the second release, “Entering Heaven Alive,” due July, a a folk-centered effort. As it turns out, this sheds plenty of light on the nature of the first offering, “Fear of the Dawn.” Having allowed himself an independent outlet for his mellower instincts, White has ended up funneling the others into an album more chaotically energetic than any previous work. If White had long been aspiring to save rock ‘n’ roll through his overall career, the latest album finds him doing so in a single record. “Fear of Dawn” is easily White’s heaviest and most radical album to date.

White has always effortlessly dished out the type of instantaneous, wide-grinning guitar fare that conjures rock ‘n’ roll spirit in its most mythical excesses. He begins the opener “Taking Me Back” in the same manner as “Blue Orchid,” with a killer riff that already sounds classic. Whatever exactly he gets up to in the studio, he somehow manages to make his guitar sounds heavier with each release. From the onset, there’s brutal distortion, and the drums pound away with a ramshackle ferocity, as we launch directly into forty minutes of madness with a momentum that shows no sign of abating. Each of the first six tracks sounds like it has several songs crammed into it, in the best way possible. White goes haywire with his soloing, advancing from one novel noise to the next. The seamless segue into the title track comes across like just another new section in some indefinite prog undertaking, as distortion grows more brutal yet, and White revels in various squelching and creaking guitar heroics. It can feel as if White is on a devilish quest to constantly one-up the listener, simply piling on more and more. “The White Raven” brings yet another manic onslaught with torrential blasts, dizzying rhythmic changes, and raging screams from White. 

White continues to outdo himself, taking on increasingly wild experiments. “Hi-De-Ho” begins with what at first appears to be Jack White singing in Spanish in something akin to the White Stripes’ 2007 rendition of “Conquest.” As it turns out, however, the sound is a sample of Cab Calloway’s “Hi De Ho,” in which Calloway is essentially singing gibberish. The brass bursts that propelled the original singing have been beefed up with thrusts of distorted guitar. Out of the blue, we find the band suddenly locked into a groove, with Q-Tip rapping. Instead of adopting some minimal percussion to accommodate the hip-hop stylings, as would be the expected move, White keeps the dynamics decidedly hard rock, switching for a segment to an off-kilter handclap pulse, then bringing back the drums in their full fury. He tries his hand at gibberish vocals of his own along the way, and the track rapidly shifts shapes, taking on a structure, or lack thereof, that really bears no precedent. 

From here, White dives into dub reggae stylings on “Eosophobia,” named after a Greek term that translates to the album title. The frenetic drums that have been a highlight from the album’s onset here splatter into echoing trails, as White embarks on a series of tangents. Each fanciful detour ends in a clever resolution, as White finds grounding in some muscular riffage or other gripping gesture, effortlessly locks the listener into a groove, then shortly wanders freely off again. White is so well-versed in rock ‘n’ roll tradition that whatever bait he dangles for his fleeting moments of relative normalcy hooks you in much like a traditional chorus or central musical motif would, effectively eliminating the need for such devices altogether. This approach sees its greatest triumph in both “Eosophobia” and “Into the Twilight,” which samples, out of all things, two songs from pop jazz vocal outfit the Manhattan Transfer. White bookends the track with a snippet of scatting and vocal harmony trickery from the group’s “Another Night in Tunisia,” and fashions a refrain from a single line in their “Twilight Zone / Twilight Tone.” Around this, he darts wildly, mixing thrillingly mutant, alien sounds with classic noise. Midway, we find a sample of William Burroughs, which seems just about right, amid what might be described as a sonic equivalent of the Beat writer’s “cut-up technique.” 

The modest interlude of “Dusk” offers a midway moment of relief from the onslaught, Then, “What’s the Trick?” returns to heavy riffage, over which White’s lyrics take on a stream of consciousness fitting the free form of the music, as his distorted voice narrates, “This is my first / My worst / My past / And my last / Imperfect effort.” He continues to wreak havoc, as his guitar squelches and sputters, and bursts of manic noise builds to ever-satisfying riffs. “That Was Then, This Is Now” kicks of like some more classic White Stripes fare, albeit with some knotty turns. White lays down a meaty sludge of  layered funky synths and distorted guitars, Halfway through, we are hijacked and locked into a time warp of sorts, until a climactic voicing of the meta song title prompts another instantaneous riff.

As if the excesses of “Eosophobia” weren’t enough, White goes on to reprise it. The revisit, however, focuses on the track’s jammier elements, as if to signal the beginnings of a cleanup effort. Sure enough, “Morning, Noon, and Night” brings a return to relative normalcy, with comfortably familiar ‘70s rock textures and a minimal bass stomp that springs into action and reverts back with some welcome stability. Finally, “Shedding My Velvet” rings like the calm after the storm – at least by Jack White standards. White makes sure to throw in some stops and starts along the way. Ultimately, a steady beat and old-fashioned singalong go a long way for ears left ringing from the preceding paroxysms. 

“Fear of Dawn” is essentially a condensation of prog rock ambitions. White’s latest songs are multi-part opuses with elaborate conceits, very much in the prog rock transition, save that they spare you the twenty-minute organ solos. Instead, White moves manically from one idea to the next, cramming each track with ideas in a hyperactive onslaught. While the ADHD descriptor is casually thrown around, it’s not exactly accurate, as White plays plenty of attention to detail. He simply chooses to direct it to other ends than conventional song structures or sustained development of themes. White is so fluent in the vernacular of rock ‘n’ roll history that his every instinct leads to loaded references with immediate resonance. And with no shortage of supply, he might as well simply pile them on. The songs at times resemble something akin to a rock version of the most manic Squarepusher or Aphex Twin tracks. The surfeit of energy on display makes for some of White’s most thrilling music to date, for those who can endure it. And for the rest, there will surely be something coming in July.

Fear of the Dawn” releases April 8 on Apple Music.