Dopelord – Sign of the Devil (Released 2020)
Sign of the Devil presents doom/stoner/sludge at its most accessible. There are no 20 minute jam session space odysseys, nor are there any weird, minutes-long feedback experiments, and the whole package clocks in at a tight 36:03 of big, fat doom riffs supported by big, fat doom bass.
This accessibility is one of the album’s biggest strengths, second only to the masterful production (Why can’t they all sound like this?). Just about everything here is here for a reason. Truly great stoner metal is built not just around riffs, but also around shifts in tempo, groove, and intensity; a great stoner metal track uses the former as tension to build to the release of the latter.
Dopelord (who, in fairness, are hardly newcomers) demonstrate mastery, edging on toward internalization, of this concept, and, perhaps in the interest of brevity, they demonstrate willingness to stretch their builds and releases across multiple tracks. The opening track combo of The Witching Hour Bell, with it’s dirge-like build and masterful escalation toward its climax (dig that doom bell!), segues beautifully into the mid-tempo bash of Hail Satan.
However, on Doom Bastards, the album’s centerpiece and masterpiece, Dopelord put on a nine-minute clinic, as its quiet, spooky, synth-tinged intro gives way to a mammoth, mountain crushing main riff, which ultimately gives way to a cannon blast of old-school speed. The final shift, while not anywhere close to maximum speed in an absolute sense, is executed so masterfully, and the underlying groove is so potent, that it all but grabs you by the neck and throttle you into headbanging submission.
And yet, for all of the praise Sign of the Devil deserves, its accessibility is also kind of a weakness. Let’s face it, while I could live a fully, happy life without ever having heard an extended feedback breakdown, part of the appeal of the subgenre is its eternal willingness to get weird. Dopesmoker would be a masterpiece even if it had been divided into tracks, but aren’t we all glad it’s not? At times, Sign of the Devil feels a bit bland, a bit paint-by-numbers; in particular, I find penultimate track World Beneath Us less than impressive.
That said, I listened to this album more times than I care to admit this year, and there are certainly reasons for that.
Standout Tracks: Hail Satan, Doom Bastards, Headless Decapitator
Bong Wizard – Left Hand Pass (Released 2020)
I stumbled across these guys about a week ago; I saw a single titled Christ Is Resin, giggled like an idiot for a solid minute or so, and took the plunge. This band is about exactly what you would expect; special shout-outs to the the About page on their website, featuring a picture of an old NES being used as a bong. Do I lose cred for mentioning that I’m getting a bit panicky just thinking about taking a hit from this device?.
Trappings aside, the music is also most of what I would expect. Whereas Dopelord creates contrast by varying riffs and tempos, Left Hand Pass is dedicated almost solely to quiet/loud contrasts. The album rarely, if ever, speeds up past glacial tempos. The guitar and bass are fuzzy, but it’s a very dry kind of fuzz; the best comparison point I can think of (and here I must certainly lose cred, because not only am I doing analysis via direct comparison, but an extremely basic comparison, at that) is Volume 4-era Sabbath. The guitar feels simultaneously chunky, but also it sort of doesn’t? It’s fuzzy, but it’s not buzzy, if that makes any sense.
I wasn’t terribly impressed at first. There simply isn’t enough variety to hold my complete interest for the album’s full 46 minutes. The tempo doesn’t ever really change, the groove doesn’t ever really change, and quiet/loud attack doesn’t ever really change. After a while, it all starts to feel a bit samey. I would have appreciated some more variety somewhere. Vary the tempo, add some proggy bits, maybe have space out the extended doom workouts with quicker tracks in the 3-4 minute range (3 of the 8 tracks here clock in under 5 minutes, but it doesn’t always feel like it). All I’m asking is that they do some things differently some times, you know?
That said, Left Hand Pass grew on me over the past week. Bong Wizard has clearly decided on a sound, and to their credit, they’re pretty good at executing it. Left Hand Pass is their first full-length, and really, all you want to hear out of a debut is potential. Bong Wizard certainly has that; I’ll be keeping an eye on them. If they can add just a handful of tricks to their bag, they could be a force.
Standout Tracks: Christ Is Resin, Left Hand Pass, Apostle
Gurt – Bongs of Praise (Released 2019)
Left Hand Pass provided exactly what I expected going in, but Bongs of Praise tricked me. I try to have an open mind going into new experiences, but when I saw that album name, this album cover, and a tracklist comprised solely of titles based around weed wordplay, it was extremely difficult for me to expect anything other than normal doom and sludgy stuff. And, while the mid-heavy guitar sound of intro track DR STRANGELEAF tips Gurt’s hand as to what is to come, the computer-voiced (is that an original Macintosh?) list of weed facts sated my rampant confirmation bias.
And then Weed it and Weep, the first proper song on the album, shows that this commitment to mids is no accident. Bongs of Praise may be obsessed with weed, but very little of the album fits in the doom/stoner/sludge mold. Instead, this album is a modern take on traditional metal territory, and when I say traditional, I mean it; in terms of speed and arrangement techniques, this is decidedly NWOBHM-influenced. If you gave these songs cleaner vocals and swapped out the contemporary production for something scuzzier, it wouldn’t sound entirely out of place coming from, oh I don’t know, Diamond Head, let’s say.
Beyond the arrangements and production decisions, this traditionalist streak extends to the songwriting itself. The doom-screaming vocals may distract from this for some, but this is a band that is deeply concerned with crafting hooks. Riffs and vocals are designed together, and interwoven for maximum impact; consider the slithering interplay of SQUIDGY BLACK SLIDE as it worms your way into the deepest recesses of your brain.
Even among the several longer tracks here, the emphasis is on reeling the listener in, as with the dancing guitar licks that intro THE JOINT OF NO RETURN, which goes on to a whole journey of riffs and speeds in a relatively tight (by the standards of metal epics, at any rate) six minutes and change, all of which set up beautifully with that interest-popping intro. This is a band that knows what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. At it’s best, it’s thrilling, and even the relatively lesser tracks have aspects to admire. Highest recommendation, pun intended!
Standout Tracks: SQUDGY BLACK SLIDE, THE JOINT OF NO RETURN, MARIJUARMCHAIR
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