Friday, May 22, 2015
Thus, with something akin to the storytelling of Agalloch, Anathema or Alcest whilst drunk on Sabbathian doom and Opethian melancholy, the Californian quintet unveil an opus with cold, bleak beginnings leading to later forays into their harder, darker material.
Now, 13 tracks for a band like SOTS would indicate a complete change of tack. It is with some relief, then, that once you’ve got past the superb concept of having seven short, tension-building, feeder sound recordings then you’re left with a mere six full-lengths to pore over. Yes, it’s a gimmick to separate one type from the other but at least they don’t hide them behind complex titles, opting for simple Roman numeral formatting instead.
Following the introductory crashing of waves upon a shoreline (which also neatly bookends the album), they serve up “Three Swords” and our first taste of Garett Gazay’s clean vocal, which rises from amidst a swathe of minor keys, starting at a whisper, continuing through to strident song and finally into his more recognisable blackened shriek and roar. Initially the light, melancholic tone can make the clean vocal feel tentative, weak and, dare it be said, tuneless and at times overtly preachy. It’s hard to ignore the way they baby-step you into the album with dull, cyclical phrases such as “lying on a river” (from “Three Swords”), or “love this [life]” and “I don’t care anymore” (from “Another Light”) but they are balanced by the simple joys provided by the shrewd folk metal crunch of “Angels In Vine” and the brilliantly dark split-delivery of “Garden Of Prayers”, with the latter-half subtly hinting at the enigmatic delivery of Palms’ Chino Moreno.
Echoing footsteps upon a stone path, via the obstacles of trickling water, inhuman chuntering, industrial clanking and mantra chanting, have somehow led us inevitably to a roaring fire and the gloriously-consuming, black-edged “Fosforos”. It’s the signal for all-hell to let loose and the change of pace and instant freedom that comes with it is palpable. The chugs become more fervent and the screech and roars unhinged as the flames lick around our feet. Then, with a final flourish they power home their masterpiece, “Eternal Wolves”, which effortlessly combines the album’s constituent parts to create a single, unforgettable microcosm that positively glows from within with sweeping builds, chiming threads and poisonous barbs right through to that final guillotine moment.
There’s no doubting the sonic shift from the threatening, gritty malice of their debut to something more subtle, mournful and introspective. In its final moments, the picture is revealed in glorious monochrome. There are also definite bonus points here for ignoring the usual charade of tracklisting the heavier material up front, and thereby adhering to the ‘journey’ and the gradual unveiling of the concept. Consequently, the album flows beautifully through all of its rises and falls. Sure, it isn’t without its weaknesses, but it’s a Pathway I’d heartily recommend you walk.
Monday, May 18, 2015
From the off, they set a breakneck pace with “Over Under” gifting frontman Douwe the opportunity to begin firing out his snarls and yells over the feisty, warm string-work of Beydals’. All good so far, yet it seems they’re not quite the “psychedelic protopunks” they claim to be either. However, there is a dark underbelly to this that should be confronted.
They really are serious about that Black Magick part, you see. There are haunting moans lurking in the background and there’s a significant degree of menace in the way he yells “You’re gonna get it!” Oddly, there’s a definite backing drop-out which accompanies such a vehement statement - it’s suddenly all a bit unnerving. Then, for the swinging title-track they invite you to peek “behind the curtain” to a place where they practice the dark arts. Here, there’s tripped-out lines such as “You’re impregnated with a magical charm, cross-contaminated to make you small” to contend with and also a real seedy tone struggling to fight through the sashaying rhythmic vibes.
As the constituent parts of the music diametrically oppose each other, it’s easy to find the vocal tone something of a jarring hindrance to the glowing bluesy wash of what lies beyond it. However, when Douwe slows his roll, as he does for “Golden Fields of Love”, it all finally begins to mesh and “Alles Komt Goed” as they say in the ‘Dam.
They do finally concede to Beydals will for the closing seven-and-a-half minutes of the album allowing him full rein to jam, solo and consequently send us grooving into a state of utter bliss. It’s the icing on the cake that makes the track “Supernatural Predator”, with its rich kaleidoscopic exterior and thick black heart, quite the formidable act to follow – headline acts beware.
There is a potential for their music to experiment and dig down deeper into the occult and summon even wilder sounds. What’s most surprising of all is that I can’t think of a safer pair of hands to get us to that point than those of Death Alley. Whilst other retro bands recreate the past, these lads pay due homage to it, then give it a damn good shake. Perhaps next time, they’ll shake a little harder.
Monday, May 11, 2015
Well, there's certainly an element of their more exploratory later albums in here, but there's also a taste of something completely new to the band - the subversive, experimental edge that has followed frontman Mike Patton's solo career around. The content feels unusually spacious with short whip-cracks of sound. It's an album unsure of itself, yet one with a wild-eyed lunatic forever ducking into and out of the shadows. It feels dark, unkempt, anguished and unruly. This is music built for the stage - hell, it's so choreographed the tracks could form scenes of a play.
Just the sound of Sol Invictus will singe the ears and sting the eyes. It's inevitably the fact that there is a step-up in production values since their last studio foray, but this has an almost maddening degree of layering and an overwhelming dynamic range. What has changed most of all here is the weakening of the band's guitar rock bias; it is a recording marked out by a chilly, piercing tone rather than one with their usually warm underscore. Roddy Bottom's keyboards emerge as the staging platform from which Patton can launch his adaptive combination of croon, spoken word and psychotic invective, and Billy Gould's bass has shifted from driving the beast to merely steering it.
From behind a progression, one strikingly similar to that of The Stone Roses, but with an added military drum-roll and a soft piano, Patton's half-whispered, half-rapped verses of the short title-track are pre-cursors to the real deal when monsters like "Superhero" and "Motherfucker" finally hit. The former snarls with menace as it plays a game of catch-and-release with the huge hook of the chorus - an enigmatic piano cascade and the lyric "Leader of men, get back in your cage". The latter is another familial, measured, half-spoken rap. Determined and fluorescing this was always going to be their party-piece - too subversive to be mainstream, too catchy to be anything other than the album's first tease. Even "Sunny Side Up" proves they aren't messing when it comes to driving home the hooks, while always bouncing ideas off the backbone of the track. Here, they conjure up a passage of funk guitar, burbling backing vocals, and transient classic piano. The boys appear to be diving in to their task with their confidence high and their imaginations bubbling nicely.
They also seem just as comfortable connecting with their past as they are keen to experiment with new sounds. One track in particular, "Separation Anxiety", appears to step firmly into the footprint of their 1992 "Land Of Sunshine" hit and that jagged rumbling underscore overlaid by rapid, lyrical bursts. Yet, it also explodes from it into sections of maniacal raving with Patton employing a vocal element not a million miles from that of Deftones/Palms' Chino Moreno's.
Ultimately though, there's more here that will shock than will appease. You'll notice that, seeping up between the cracks in the pavement, we also get a variety of atmospheric effects which daub the album with strong, stylized strokes. For example, "Cone Of Shame" is the biggest step into the warped mind of Patton's recent body of extreme music and is heavily-embedded with minor keys. Then, "Rise Of The Fall" plays with depth of field; layered deep and recorded both in your face and way at the back of the room. Bursting with a folky shtick it employs arcane instrumentation - possibly, castanets and accordion with what sounds like a dampened or plastic-stringed guitar. There's also "Matador" to engage with, which pulls through elements akin to the dark work of .
As a final statement, "From The Dead" is awash with colour, yet feels detached from the rest of the album. It really is an easy-listening bolt-on bonus without direction or purpose. With that in mind, it seems obvious that, as expectation has raged out of control for this album, Sol Invictus was always going to disappoint on some level. No, it isn't the masterpiece so many dreamed it would be but, then again, it does what Billy Gould promised it would - it "kicks things up a notch". Of course, if Patton manages to mimic this degree of mania in a live setting, then all will be forgiven. The jury remains out on whether they can rediscover their mojo, but if they are to do it by warping perceptions then they're making all the right noises; just perhaps not in what many will perceive to be the right order.