It takes all of about .01 seconds to deduce that We Hunt Buffalo are riff purveyors of the big, fat and ugly tonal variety. With a name like that, you can’t go around peddling post-punk or tinny garage rock. It’s basically Stoner Metal 101 that bands named after huge, heavy animals (whether mythical, prehistoric, or contemporary) give way to thick-ass riffs, but the Canadian trio’s latest, Head Smashed In, is some graduate-level heavy. It’s foundationally the fuzzy riff-tuals you’re currently picturing in your head, but there’s a degree of sophistication and maturity in songwriting present here that keeps the record inviting and evergreen. Hell, just the fact that it’s not all riffs is a bonus; the atmosphere that emerges is unique enough to pull listeners back again and again.
Head Smashed In greets listeners with the comforting sounds of enveloping, fuzzy, and tantalizingly groovy riffage from the get-go. “Heavy Low” is a savory salutation that’s brawny and anthemic, and it creates a formula for many of the tracks that follow: catchy-ass riff, memorable hook, a few well-placed rests or kinks, a quirky bridge or pre-chorus, and repeat. It’s not only fun as hell, but it’s uncharacteristically catchy for forward-thinking stoner rock like this. Follow up “Angler Must Die” doubles down with a similarly askew style of dirt-rock where guitarist/vocalist Ryan Forsythe’s peppery howls are enough to make your eyes water, but (like any good barbeque sauce) there’s a sweetness in his delivery that creates a fetching balance. This particular track is about as harsh as things get vocally, with Forsythe’s otherwise gruff vibrato commanding the record’s indignant (“Industry Woes”) and chilled-out (“God Games”) climes. “Angler Must Die” is also an early high-energy peak on the record. As adrenaline-pumping as this begins, it’s strange that this is so front-loaded in terms of tempo and vigor. There are wily leads, savvy drum fills and uproarious moments to be found elsewhere, but they don’t ever hit quite like this opening duo, and it’s a big part of why the record as a whole feels airy and unexpectedly light.
With this in mind, the winds of change noticeably come about on “Prophecy Wins,” which sees the group slowing things down and tapping into a proggier headspace. It’s about as lax as stoner rock can get, drifting along with the smooth effortlessness and layered complexity of an Elder or Weedpecker. “Get in the Van” is a brief instrumental that picks back up on the pace, but it’s a mere breather in what becomes a longer line of laid-back jams. Still, it’s a full-force demonstration of the deft play and range of drummer Brandon Carter (who makes everything so silky and easy sounding) and bassist Cliff Thiessen (who might also handle some keys?) as they give this latter half a nice blend of power and ease. It becomes a liberating listening experience that’s largely set up by the more traditional and raucous opening tracks. It’d be amiss to claim that they’re less heavy, but the shift to an atmospheric focus is in plain sight.
Essentially, the big surprise of Head Smashed In isn’t that it’s jam-packed with delectably cranium-crushing riffs (I mean, it is… with a title like that, how couldn’t it be?), but rather how it also gradually reveals itself to be bright, warm, melodious, and increasingly adventurous as it goes on. Yeah, it’s robust and meaty, but it’s steeped in the brainy knowhow of heavy melodicism that’s championed by fuzzy torchbearers like Beastwars, Droids Attack, or Lo-Pan. This album is littered with quality hooks and melodic twists and turns that soften the blow of their razing riffage and often tricky, punctuating style. “Industry Woes” stands out with an unforgettable lead that’ll inevitably become a whistle-along, putting their own spin on a Red Fang type of earworm. ”The Giant’s Causeway” ventures deeper into even chiller pastures, feeling like The Sword experimenting with desert rock with a gentler, folkier twang. Much in the same fashion, “Anxious Children” has this oddball, gypsy sort of bounce that merges with gritty, bluesy folk.
As everyone else gets caught in a pissing match over riffs, tones, and “heaviness,” the emphasis on Head Smashed In is different, and it offers the group the opportunity to take some minor detours into new soundscapes and “Keep It Refreshing” (as the aptly titled song does; it’s a strangely uplifting sludge track). Fortunately, the important parts are nailed down: it’s fun, it’s often memorable, and it’s an utterly easy listen that can be thrown on and enjoyed on a whim. It’s deep enough to earn serious rotation, too. Unfortunately, it’s at times too easy for its own good, sometimes becoming a little passive and even a bit sleepy as it winds down. Still, it’s a great addition to any stoner rock connoisseur’s library, as We Hunt Buffalo have put together a wonderfully nice change of pace record that’s not a “just another” anything. Derivative and uninspired this ain’t; there’s little doubt that these dudes have an even brighter future ahead of them.