Super groups often don't turn out well. Egos clash, individual creative preoccupations don't mesh the way the participants imagined they would, and restless fans aren't always tolerant of the fact that their idols have abandoned old hits in favor of unfamiliar material. But the Gutter Twins, a potent pairing of ex-Afghan Whigs front man Greg Dulli and former Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan, appear to have sidestepped the jinx on the just-released Saturnalia. The moody debut disc uses Dulli's smoldering howl and Lanegan's deep, Jim Morrison-esque crooning to create a charcoal-smeared sonic world that's gothic in tone and intensity without being overwhelmed by cartoonish necrophilia.
Saturnalia was nearly five years in the making, and you can tell. Dulli and Lanegan meld perfectly as they goad each other to journey ever further into the derangement of psychic turbulence. Unlike many of their super forebears, they've clearly spent the time it takes to understand exactly how to play to each other's creative strengths.
If there's a hit here, it's "Idle Hands," an unsettling blend of Christian hymn and godless post-punk that recalls the darkest days of Joy Division and the Sisters of Mercy. Lanegan uses his throaty baritone to evoke the uneasy liberation that comes with forbidden pleasure while a steady, pile-driving drum beat and a grimy rhythm guitar pound home the notion that every taboo is meant to be broken.
The two often sing in unison, but Lanegan is always the stronger voice. Indeed, Dulli is at his best when he subtly reinforces his lugubrious mate's dark intoning on atmospheric rock dirges like the electric-piano-driven "Bete Noire" and the strings-enhanced "The Stations."
So will the well-turned recorded material come alive in a concert setting? That's hard to say. Although Dulli and Lanegan have worked together for years, the Gutter Twins have only played a handful of shows. Moreover, live reviews all note that the almost motionless Lanegan rarely strays far from his mike stand, which leaves all the broader strokes of performance to Dulli. To be honest, that sounds like a pretty unbalanced stage show. On the other hand, if that's this super group's only deficiency, I'll take it.