If you lived in Austin during the first half-dozen years of the new century and were also relatively hip to the local club and indie rock scene, odds are you might have heard of a band called the Real Heroes. And if you ever actually heard the Real Heroes, you’d definitely remember them. National success on the level of a Fastball, Spoon, or Trail of Dead eluded them, and I have no idea how far they ever even made it outside of the city limits or even the Red River District. But they were hands down one of the most exhilarating bands I’ve ever seen live, and their 2004 sophomore album, Greetings from Russia, still holds up as one of my favorite rock records of the last two decades. Their self-titled 2001 debut is right up there, too, especially the audacious “Stop Breakin’,” a stone-cold killer of a power pop and glam cocktail that not only evokes both Cheap Trick and Bowie in their ’70s prime, but damn near beats ’em.
So yeah, you could say the Real Heroes definitely had my number. I remember effusively introducing them onstage at the now long-gone Austin Hard Rock Cafe for Texas Music’s 2004 Reader Appreciation Party, and I remember the thrill of later playing a six-track sampler of new songs culled from their soon-to-be-released third album, grinning like a blissed-out idiot all the way through my first full-volume blast encounter with “Metal Only” and “We Can Do Better.”
That would have been in March 2006. And “soon”? That turned out to be a whopping 15 years later.
Now ideally, you’d think a delay of that magnitude would at least warrant a half-decent story of rock ’n’ roll drama or some sort of industry nonsense. Perhaps something in a classic nasty record label contract dispute or your standard-issue inter-band creative differences, or maybe even a full-blown case of whatever it was that waylaid Brian Wilson in the middle of making the Beach Boys’ Smile or caused Axl Rose to spend more than a dozen years obsessively recording and re-recording the last Guns ’n Roses album with a revolving cast of thousands. But the Real Heroes’ third album was locked and loaded a year before Apple released the first iPhone, and the band never had a label other than its own. And according to frontman Benjamin Hotchkiss, they never actually even officially broke up; it was just a matter of members “splitting off into new lives and new wives,” and a reluctance on his part, out of loyalty, to assemble a new lineup just to promote the record live. Instead, he and fellow Heroes Paul English (guitar) and Kyle Crusham (guitar, keyboards) channeled their collective mojo into the wildly popular Austin all-star cover band Skyrocket!, and the best record the Real Heroes ever made was left to languish on a shelf of oh-wells and mighta-beens.
Until now. Whether by quarantine whim or even as part of the opening salvo of a possible full-fledged Real Heroes comeback (Hotchkiss himself reports they’ve all stayed in touch and there’s at least a glimmer of hope), The Red Sun was Pasted in the Sky Like a Wafer made its official debut with a May 21 release on Bandcamp, and it’s due on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify and other digital/streaming outlets by the end of June (but don’t hold your breath waiting for it on CD or vinyl). And yes, it was absolutely worth that wait. And unless you’ve absolutely sworn off rock ’n’ roll in the interim, if you loved the Heroes way back in the George W. Bush years, rest assured you’ll still love them today. And if Red Sun should be your introduction to the band, well, lucky, lucky you. Hooks abound and never let up, from the (still) fantastic “We Can Do Better” straight through to the wry and wicked “Good to Be Bad” (one of two “bonus tracks,” whatever that means in a case like this). Ditto the aforementioned nods to classic Bowie and Cheap Trick that the band had down cold from the get-go, albeit always with a flash and flair of their own, and there’s more than a little Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Big Star, and big dumb but unabashedly fun dollops of Kiss in the mix, too. All that and tons of humor, too, and not just in Hotchkiss’ louche character studies (think full-blown rock star decadence cut with a knowing wink and punk sneer). The music itself manages to crack wise while still sounding kick-ass. To wit: If you don’t find yourself grinning every time you hear that sinuous disco groove running through “Metal Only” making way for the double-barreled sax solo, you just don’t know a helluva good time when it’s screaming right in front of your face.