Over a decade after metal’s resurgence, it seems to be stronger than ever, thanks to loyal followers of it’s many diverse mutations, resisting the patterns of other popular music to fall out of fashion. Sure, metal continues to ebb and flow in and out of favor of the mainstream in its nearly 50 year history, and certain subgenres sell better than others. For the kind of bands I follow, it’s a good sign when just a single day sees the release of several heavy albums worth hearing.
Anciients – Voice Of The Void (Season Of Mist)
On the Vancouver-based band’s promising debut, Heart Of Oak (2013), it was fairly easy to spot influences such as early Mastodon, Baroness, High On Fire and mid-period Opeth. Paying homage to some of my favorite metal bands certainly grabbed my attention, and for a debut, still had just enough of their own signature prog sludge sound. While all three of those bands have drifted away from their harder edged metal roots in recent years, Anciients have actually gotten heavier on their second album, a somewhat rare event. The band’s core inspirations remain the same, but they have made progress in bending the bars to form their own niche. The diversity of their styles are often packed within a single song, such as the changes in “Buried In Sand,” including a ferocious instrumental and vocal roar, switching off with clean vocals and an atmospheric psychedelic interlude and tricky prog time signatures. It’s no surprise that it’s also the longest track at 10:46. With two other tracks at nearly ten minutes, the album stretches out to well over an hour and six minutes, but does a good job in holding my interest with plenty of great riffs such as on “Pentacle,” and progged out solos worth of Tool on “Ibex Eye.” “Worshipper” gets nasty and sludgy, and “Serpents” has a subdued doomy atmosphere. The album closes with “Incantations,” peaking with another impressive burst of energy and riffage. When any variation of style can be compared to many of the thousands of bands out there, it’s hard to expect any band to always blaze new trails. Anciients offer a fresh updated bent on styles that many miss in their favorite bands.
40 Watt Sun – Wider Than The Sky (Radiance)
Patrick Walker has always strode a diverted path from traditional doom. With his previous band Warning, particularly on the classic Watching From A Distance (2006), he lent an especially soulful, mournful quality with his melodic vocals that were closer to Michael Stipe than Ozzy Osbourne. He named his next band, 40 Watt Sun after the Marillion song “Emerald Lies” and refined his sound further on The Inside Room (2011), which became a key influence on bands like Pallbearer. After five years in the sun, the metal has melted away, leaving little trace of doom, with more in common with sadcore indie bands like Frightened Rabbit, and the stark, unadorned avant folk of Richard Youngs. While this change in direction will no doubt dismay certain fans, Walker’s vocal approach is still pretty much the same. It’s his voice that always served as the core of his songs, and here it’s just further up front, with similarly languid tempos, still accompanied by similar bass and guitar playing, but without distortion. Metal fans are probably getting used to this, when bands like Opeth switched from death metal, to acoustic to prog and Baroness tackled indie rock. Nevertheless with the album opening with the 16:15 long “Stages,” it can be a challenge to get into. It can easily work as background music, but for focused listening, you definitely have to be in the right mood, preferably a patient one. There are riffs and melodies to be found, they just float by at the speed of clouds on a nearly windless day. If you do find yourself in sync or in a properly Zen mood, it can be incredibly beautiful and moving.
The Well – Pagan Science (RidingEasy)
The Austin, Texas band’s brand of metal was dropped in a well and left to rust since about 1972. The result is some strangely beautiful patterns in the decay, but also a little gross. Maybe it’s the attached appendage that looks like some sort of alien growth, or perhaps a baby demon. That’s essentially the trajectory of The Well. While they have retained the gritty textures of their psychedelic garage doom and proto-metal from their debut Samsara (2014), they have also expanded their sound palette. The recording soundstage is wider and more detailed, but also just a bit more evil, allowing slower numbers like “A Pilgrimage” and “Choir Of The Stars” to unfold with a boosted atmosphere of dread. “Byzantime” begins with some monk chants that’s far spookier than anything Ghost has come up with. Ian Graham and Lisa Alley still wrap their vocals together not in harmony, but more like intertwined snakes. “One Nation” contemplates the terrifying potential consequences of today’s completely insane political arena, recalling the bitter cynicism of prime Pink Floyd. The band can still scare up some hard rockers too. On “Black Eyed Gods” and “Drug From The Banks,” there’s plenty of searing guitar leads, and the drums thump like bats on corpses encased in bodybags. While the band covered Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam” on their first album, this time they tackle Crosby Stills & Nash’s “Guinevere,” giving it a very unique, eerie treatment. Not content just to bash out riffs in the garage, The Well have ambition, and their growth is well represented on Pagan Science.
After metal has boiled off into the atmosphere or rusted into oblivion, what’s left? Rock of course, the harder and dirtier, the sturdier. Paying homage to glam and Slade (“U Got Wot I Need”), hairy brains and Budgie (“Hairy Brain Part 2”), nightshade vegetables and Motörhead (“Potato Boy”), Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell are both a warning and invitation on what excessive drugs can do to you. When many bands take themselves too seriously, they provided an irreverent, palate-cleansing set at Roadburn last spring. Not the type of band to be interested in progressing, let alone learning and growing, it’s still a significant level above throwaway, with just some really fun, catchy rock ‘n’ roll songs. “Tired’N’Wired” wobbles between Zeppelin pastiche and parody that might bring their artistic notch down a notch as enjoyable as it is. So these songs may not last forever, but they should keep you entertained until the next album.
Sweden’s Captain Crimson play it more straight, but with unbridled enthusiasm, which makes them tip top in my book when I’m in the mood for meat ‘n’ potatoes hard rock with a touch of stoner psych. Just a year after Ageless Time (2015) comes yet another awkward title for their third album, Remind. I keep thinking it says “Rewind,” but no, it’s Remind. Like a post-it note to remember to rock? Or to be reminded of simpler days when you had gatefold albums to sort out your weed and the furniture colors were variations of mustard and puke. Come to think of it, with Dancing Madly Backwards (2012), all the titles seem to be about the past. I suppose the band is truly embracing their role in retro rock and boogie. Fair enough! They may not be the band to replace the recently broken up Graveyard as my new favorite (though “Black Rose” makes a valiant effort to earn that prestige), but I can recommend them to fans of other fellow Swedes like Spiritual Beggars and Blues Pills. On “Money” they show they can do a slower Hendrixian number just as well as bigger American stars Rival Sons. However they might be at their strongest with faster, syncopated numbers like “Drifting” which recalls Eric Bell era Thin Lizzy at their best.
I nearly forgot that yet another important album is out today, Red Fang’s third album, Only Ghosts. Like Anciients, Red Fang started out influenced quite a bit by early Mastodon, Baroness and High On Fire, along with Clutch and Torche. The main difference is that Red Fang takes a punkier approach to their stoner sludge sound. For some reason, I’ve had trouble clicking with the band. It’s not that they’re not a great band, but like Kylesa and Black Tusk, I just haven’t connnected with their songs, and my fatigue threshold with some of the sludgier bands is low. Their latest album is definitely a progression, varying from their sludge punk style template into more precise sounding tunes with clean vocals along the lines of later Queens of the Stone Age, but also reaching back into Kyuss territory and even some 90s noise rock. “Not For You” and “The Smell Of The Sound” are two examples of their more accessible sound. The majority of the album is still very heavy, nearly claustrophobic but always played with tight discipline. There’s of course a strong caveman chest-beating element that I can appreciate, while at the same time they also exude intelligence and humor. I feel like this album could possibly grow on me, but most likely will not quite make my year-end top 100. It’s not them though, it’s me and my own preferences. Fans of this style should definitely check them out. I’ll even most likely be seeing them live this winter with Torche opening.