“Personality” is a word that’s not frequently thrown around when discussing doom or sludge metal. We’re often (and justifiably) engrossed in domineering riffage, thundering drums, and the bellowing growls of some dude shrouded in beard. But no matter how much you love the stuff, as they say, first impressions are hugely important. I’ll concede that over the past few years, I’ve given more than a handful of bands a hard pass simply because I was able to reduce their sound to a dismissing referential statement like: “Oh, this sounds like (band) with (person) instead,” or “This is like (band)’s first record, but with better production,” or even “This sounds like so-and-so, but with a beard.’ (Okay, I’m kidding about that last one. I’m not perfect, but don’t pretend you don’t pull this shit yourself.) It’s not fair, but it is what it is. There’s just too much to listen to. For whatever reason (maybe I just overdid it with the sludge back in the day?), it feels like this happens more often with this scene. The point I’m really trying to make here is that when bands click on that first impression – when bands have personality – that shit really sticks with you.
Case in point: the self-titled 2011 debut from Portland, Oregon’s Norska. This bestial group bent a dark and sludgy framework into interesting new forms, shelving the always-in-vogue Black Sabbath worship for a healthy dose of Melvins, Neurosis, and just about anything with some color. Featuring Aaron Rieseberg of YOB on bass, their ties to expansive doom were expected, but not defined by this relationship. An equally unconventional approach served as a breath of fresh air, infusing unexpected influences like post metal, classic rock, prog, punk, and even fragments of math rock. Fast forward to the current sludgescape, and we might as well be in another universe. It’s as though everyone packed up their bags and moved on before the wells were run dry. Norska take advantage of the unsaturated state of the genre with their latest, Too Many Winters, proving personality and fucking superb songwriting reign supreme, regardless of the trends.
Too Many Winters is Norska’s ultimate statement. The lineup rounded out by Dustin Rieseberg (guitars), Rob Shaffer (guitars), Jason Oswalt (percussion), and Jim Lowder (vocals), feels like a supercharged version of the group that essentially perfected sludge on the first go around. Lows are lower, highs are higher, their songcraft reaches beyond the borders of each song and spill across the pieces as a whole – it’s really an album lover’s record. Opening with a Helmet-goes-to-hell riff, “Samhain” explodes out of the gate before spiraling down a dizzying river of influences. Circling guitar lines shift from classic prog to heavy metal before culminating in what’s likely the most epic classic doom outro of the year. Yet, with all of this shifting around they maintain a cohesive feel, one that is immediately (and distinctively) Norska. The mix – recording by Adam Pike at The Toadhouse & mastering by Billy Barnett at Gung-Ho Studios – couldn’t be better with clarity found at every level. Meaty toms and apple crisp snare drum contrast nicely with misty, glistening cymbals. Lowder’s distinct howl sits at the forefront, mutating his smoky howl into piercing wails, gravitating much of the record’s momentum and energy. (If you aren’t belting “Fly wonton to the blaaaack!” along with “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” call your doctor. You’re sick.) Gnarly, sticky guitar tones (so satisfying) suit the band for both sides of the sludge/doom fence, giving them an untouchable baseline for all of Too Many Winters endeavors.
Norska’s diverse and varied approach helps to make the record’s 37-minute runtime downright chuggable. Their impeccable timing makes for clever, head-turning transitions that feel damn-near psychic in their ability to squash preconceptions about where they’re going next and how, or alternatively, precisely deliver crushing bombasts to scratch the itch for those who’ve cut their teeth on this stuff. That being said, those yearning for genre legends like Mastodon or Baroness to return to their heydays are sure to be satisfied by this doom-forward spin on savvy progressive sludge. Perfect sequencing helps a quick, grimy punk blaster like “Eostre” seamlessly move from blistering solos into the album’s murky mid-paced title track (which itself tampers down into a quiet, minimalist, dismal psych-doom wallow before erupting itself). Also ideal for vinyl, there’s a nice symmetry between sides A and B. Each side sandwiches brief, contrasting sub-three-minute songs – the aforementioned burner “Eostre” and “Wave of Regrets,” a beautiful, palette-cleansing bath of luminous guitar – between metamorphic leviathans that span from minimalist to grandiose.
Too Many Winters is representative of the greatest features of this region of heavy music, namely its chameleon-like ability to incorporate so many adjacent influences: doom, sludge, traditional heavy metal, hardcore punk, noise rock, prog, post metal, etc. It’s truly all-encompassing. As we’ve seen with a number of nostalgia-tinged acts who reach back to this era, convincingly bringing these influences together isn’t enough to make a great record. Norska’s development of personality and character throughout helps make an enthralling listen from start to finish, with brilliant arrangements that stave off predictability without diminishing the fun factor. Those looking for a unique yet familiar spin on doom/sludge may find their 2017 masterpiece.
Too Many Winters has been available on Brutal Panda Records for quite some time. I’ve shamefully procrastinated this review for too many months, but had to get this out before the year came to a close. I fucking love this record and you can, too, so get it here.