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Album Review: TBA

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Album Review: Purplehaze Ensemble – S/T

What’s in a name? Take PurpleHaze Ensemble’s moniker for instance. You’d imagine this Polish quartet to be a Jimi Hendrix covers band who, before each gig, spun a coin to see which band member would get to set fire to his guitar that night. Either that or to be a room full of potheads trading heavy-lidded musings on why Weetabix tastes “like sandpaper, ma-a-a-n”. Of course, they are actually a lot more interesting than the former and a hell of a lot more compos mentis than the latter.

Interestingly, they seem to sit at the centre of a musical crossroads, where the x-axis of grunge and stoner hits the y-axis of progressive metal and ambient rock. One minute they rage like Down, with vocalist Macias screeching like Phil Anselmo would after necking a bottle of bleach, the next they are conjuring up the head-down grunge of a Soundgarden or an Alice In Chains. Head deeper into the disc and you’ll discover that they are even capable of sucking up the progressive, experimental nectar from bands like Tool or Palms.

Starting out as just plain old PurpleHaze, a band focused on dispensing a solid dose of stoner rock, they recently switched drummers and employed synth player, Bemben, who was able to add a new dimension to their music by integrating an atmospheric layer of keys and samples underneath.

Interestingly by paying homage to the “old ways” of recording, they whipped this version up in one-take at at Red Shift Studio in Cracow. Only the vocals and synths were added afterwards – it has certainly made for an album with a vital energy and an almost edgy quality to it. On the downside, that mix has produced rough patches where the instruments don’t quite marry together. In particular, the harsh tones of the guitar leap out at the listener when the rest of the band is raging, but happily it comes back into its own when the power levels drop and the waves calm.

The dissonant fizz of the driving opener “Siren’s Song” is certainly a nasty wake-up slap with Macias at full roar and firing out crunch and sludge in equal measure. The oddly-rambling nature of “Haunt The Freak” instead finds an echoing, psychedelic series of Bombay Monkey-esque samples to lounge in before the dial is cack-handedly wound up and our first taste of their grunge leanings hove into view.

By “Could I” (a nod to Alice In Chains’ “Would I”, perhaps?) they’ve settled down into the session and the track’s natural structure gives us a true taste of their innate knack for songwriting. A gentle build with warping synth soon breaks into a stone-cold groove. Here, Macias uses the rhythmic swagger to impart a chilled blue tone into his vocal. Serving him well, he craftily weaves it around the chords in patterns, throwing neat lyrical twin hooks into the verses – “Spiders on my face / Snakes inside my face”. Running at nearly eight minutes in length, you still wouldn’t say it overstays its welcome.

Ramping up the atmospherics, “Kickin’ Curbs With A Thin Stick” and “Cross” offer up sub-level bass and the warping environs of Deftones-esque lush-to-crush experimentation. The former ends with a section where the strings drop out to leave just the synth roaming from the left ear to the right like a lost bee buzzing around inside our skulls. One to avoid is the mathy “Lie Is The Answer” which punches low as the vocalist trades restraint for over-commitment to the cause. Resplendent at it’s heart, the remainder is just too loud and too loose to really make any impact.

The band’s willingness to trade between grit and power and colour-streaked, ambient washes means that there is never a dull moment at any point in this self-titled debut. Most certainly, there is room for manoeuvre and not everything meshes together quite as you’d expect it to, but there is more than enough quality within to warrant further investigation – there aren’t all that many albums out there with this much variety on display. PHE have certainly shown that they have the courage to push things to the next level and that bodes well for their future. With an extra layer of lacquer applied to the production next time out, they might just yet surprise us all. Now, whose turn is it with Jimi’s big box of matches?

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