Goatsnake – Black Age Blues (Southern Lord)

Goatsnake - Black Age Blues (Southern Lord, 2015)I can’t believe it’s been over 10 years since I was mourning the breakup of Goatsnake. Time flies man, and now they’re back. In addition to creating one of the all-time classics of stoner doom, Flower Of Disease (2000), the band is a really interesting focal point in the genre’s history. After The Obsessed broke up in 1996, the rhythm section (Guy Pinhas and Greg Rogers) joined forces with Greg Anderson of Seattle noisy proto-post-rock band Engine Kid and doomsters Burning Witch, (soon to also lead Sunn O)))) and singer Pete Stahl from hardcore band Scream, who’s drummer was Dave Grohl, and a desert session regular. That was a uncertain time for fans of the likes of Kyuss, who were broken up, and Sleep, who finished their masterpiece Dopesmoker the previous year, but their label rejected it twice, were soon to break up in frustration.

By the time Goatsnake released their first album I (1999), Kyuss had splintered into Queens Of The Stone Age and Unida, and inspired what would just be the tip of the iceberg of Kyuss worshippers Dozer and Lowrider of Sweden and Sleep’s Matt Pike was forming High On Fire. Wino from The Obsessed debuted his excellent and groovy  new project Spirit Caravan that year, while veterans Fu Manchu were on album number five. English bands Acrimony, Electric Wizard and Orange Goblin released some classics, and that year would also see releases from Nebula, The Atomic Bitchwax, Solarized, Colour Haze, Sons Of Otis, Terra Firma and Mammoth Volume. Goatsnake found themselves in the midst of a stoner doom psych explosion, and ended up touring Europe with Unida, Fatso Jetson and Electric Wizard. By their last recording, the Trampled Under Hoof EP (2004), The Obsessed guys were replaced by J.R. Conners and Kyuss’ Scott Reeder. The promising lineup dissolved before they could record a full album worthy of their talents.

It wasn’t too long until they were coaxed to reunite for a one-off performance at Roadburn in 2010. At least I thought it was a one-off, until I heard news last year of the impending album.  This lineup brings back original drummer Greg Rogers, and replaces Reeder with Scott Renner. Despite the changes, the new album establishes continuity from their last recordings while also reflecting the fact that 11 years have passed. They’ve included an odd variety of guest musicians, including David Pajo of Slint, and some soulful backing vocals from Dem Preacher’s Daughters.

Goatsnake perfected a nasty, distorted yet almost soothing low-end guitar tone that initially set them apart. That sound has since been adopted to various extents by dozens of bands, but they still sound distinct thanks to Stahl’s bluesy vocals, which make it impossible to mistake Goatsnake for anyone else. There may be traces of influences from the likes of Mark Lanegan’s Screaming Trees era work, but keep in mind, Stahl has been at this since 1981, which predates pretty much all his peers save Ozzy MF’in Osbourne.

“Another River To Cross” eases into the album with the sound of flowing water, a ghostly piano and distant female wails. When the rustic acoustic guitar kicks in, it gets progressively more foreboding, until the wall of guitars hits with the weight of a 20 foot wave. A suitably dramatic entrance for the first full-length in 15 years. “Elevated Man” gets the head nodding, but has a ridiculously catchy vocal chorus, with the band joining in. It’s simple, repetitive, and it works. Just to make sure no one thinks they’re taking themselves too seriously as returning stoner gods of doom, they toss off “Coffee & Whiskey” (“‘Til the cows are comin’ home”) that could honestly be a David Lee Roth song. They manage not to get TOO stupid, and keep it rocking hard, short and sweet. The title track involves a good amount of chest beating, beards flapping from the sound waves, screams and riffs, riffs, riffs. “House of the Moon” borrows the Stones’ backup singers circa “Shine A Light” and has them surfing a throbbing, heavy groove.   On “Jimi’s Gone” they actually have the balls to impersonate Hendrix’s voice for a couple phrases, and somehow manage not to sound like parody, thanks to the anchor of again, more great heavy riffs.  “Graves” has that great, deep tom-tom sound reminiscent of 1988-94 era Melvins (or The Obsessed), while “Grandpa Jones” is another highlight, with the most interesting arrangement involving more changes and complex vocal melodies than usual. 7:34 closer “A Killing Blues” gets back to the business of simple, menacing groove, “Lightning. Thunder. Wash my soul to the ground.”

The band sounds as heavy and vital as ever, and the fact that they have come up with some of their most memorable songs will have fans literally bursting with enthusiasm. I can’t say I’d rate it over a classic like Flower Of Disease,  and if I had a vote, I’d have loved to hear them incorporate some more psychedelic elements along the lines of the cosmic blues doom of Wo Fat. But the album is just too enjoyable to deem even remotely a disappointment. I’m on the fence about classic status, but it’s certainly a worthy candidate for year-end top 20 lists.

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