Wednesday, February 17, 2016
What I’ve Been Digging: (Late December ’15 – Early February ’16)
I’m constantly reading magazine articles, Shazaming songs from movies and shows, scouring blog posts and skimming reviews to keep up with what’s coming out so I can zero in on anything I might dig. It’s no passive process, either – and sometimes all the effort yields nothing for what feels like ages.
Then, suddenly, two months have gone by and I’ve been rocking out to a slew of great new records, but haven’t done a thing to share them. So let me try to catch up:
I don’t think anyone is surprised that the new Baroness album is excellent, but I’ve gotta say that what did surprise me was the level of maturity their latest outing displays. Sometime in the last couple years, they learned to focus their movement-based song construction into compositions that build toward joyous climaxes. In the past, it was usually pretty cool to take the ride with Baroness: you didn’t necessarily know where things were going, and it was no big deal if you never really got anywhere specific. On “Purple,” they build tiers of tightly-edited song architecture toward victorious crescendos that deliver with explosive finality. I guess what I’m saying is, Baroness has always been great at putting cool stuff into their songs, but now they’re constructing things in a way that both lays groundwork AND pays off on the promise of the original idea. Also, if you were never a huge fan of the vocals, they’ve really stepped those up, too. I have to hand it to Baroness for raising the bar on themselves in ways I definitely didn’t expect.
About three weeks ago, I checked in at The Obelisk for the first time in a while, read the latest news update, and discovered a new band whose music has rapidly become one of the best things I’m listening to. This isn’t the first time this has happened. In the past, it would inspire me to check out the prior week or two of updates to see what else I missed, but this backtracking never resulted in my finding anything else. It’s like the universe has a system: I don’t have time to visit The Obelisk for some undefined period, and then, on the appointed day, the cosmos reaches down and triggers my brain to go, “Hey, I wonder what JJ wrote about today,” and that’s the day I discover Young Hunter, We Hunt Buffalo, or, most recently, Valley of the Sun. It’s weird but comforting to feel like things are working out the way they’re supposed to; if I’d visited The Obelisk yesterday, I wouldn’t have found out about this band. But because I went there today, I did.
Anyway, Valley of the Sun. The number one thing that grabs my attention in a band is confidence, and wow – “Hearts Aflame,” the leadoff tune on VotS’s 2011 outing, “Sayings of the Seers,” bolts you to your seat with blistering swagger and nose-to-tail self-assuredness. You’d think these guys invented riffs.
Throaty, melodic, upper-register vocals soar and dive over rolling waves of the best desert-cruising grooves I’ve heard in years. Remember the first time you listened to Truckfighters? Los Natas? Slo Burn? VotS capture that same sense of the open canyon, the blistering summer heat, the inexorably-dipping sun and the irresistible horizon. I can’t turn this record off. And, if you’re like me, you probably enjoy discovering a band with a back catalog so you can sink your teeth into what they’ve done in anticipation of what they have coming. I mention this because Valley of the Sun’s new record, “Volume Rock,” is due this April. So, if you don’t know them already, this is a great time to catch up (as I’ve had the good fortune to do).
I have a distinct memory of getting a demo in the mail from Sideburn when I was still running a record label. Like, easily fifteen years ago. So when I heard they had a new album, and had been releasing new albums every few years for some time, I was intrigued, largely because not a lot of bands stay at it in the stoner rock underground for so long, especially a band who hasn’t achieved much notoriety.
Aside: I hope someone tells me when it’s officially time to stop referencing bands from the 70s when I write about current releases. For the sake of the readers, I mean. My executive editor here at Ripple is pretty hands off, which I appreciate, but I wouldn’t take offense if I happened to get an e-note from ol’ Racer to the tune of, “Look, Mr. Meteor, we all know how much you love the first three Rainbow albums – we all do – but we’re trying to reach the next generation of listeners here, so maybe ixnay on the ioday references for a while, huh?” Till then, though…
Sideburn’s new record, “Evil or Divine,” offers up a satisfying fusion of contemporary stoner-doom and timeless classic proto-metal that hearkens back to (you know where I’m going with this) Rainbow. Stargazer-esque vocals, searing leadwork, and bouncing, inhibition-free drum torrents that would elicit even Cozy Powell’s grudging acknowledgement. Ahhh.
I asked the band and their label if they had a bio – something to help me understand how they’ve been toiling at their craft for going on two decades with little progress in terms of recognition – and what I got was maybe a paragraph describing the new record and listing the members’ names. I guess that’s an indicator. I don’t think they’re trying to be mysterious; they must just have other stuff going on in their lives that’s kept Sideburn from ever becoming a full-time effort, but not so much that they couldn’t keep it going in some capacity while they quietly turned into a band to be fucking reckoned with. I for one can certainly concede that twenty years can fly by in a goddamn flash.
As such, it’s impressive that these guys have held things together as they dialed in a highly refined and intentional blend of influences and authenticity. If you’ve got a soft spot for the primal origins of both classic metal and Swedish stoner rock, don’t let another decade go by without checking out Sideburn. Not that it matters if you do, since clearly they’ll still be around putting out great records for as long as it takes you to get to ‘em.