Some months back, I sought out a track from Witch Ripper’s 2012 EP to play on my radio show. It had been some time since I heard anything from the group, so out of curiosity I scoped out their Facebook page, wholly expecting it to be left out of date, maybe with some cool “RIP” post. Lo and behold, I was wrong, and even more to my surprise, they were gearing up for their latest release, Homestead (more on that soon). To be perfectly honest, this EP couldn’t have been better timed. A year after Mastodon’s awkward back-to-basics descent with The Hunter and on the heels of Baroness’ mellower summertime hit Yellow and Green, this EP was the perfect way to hold fast to the prog-sludge that seemed to be vanishing before our very eyes. Homestead, Witch Ripper’s first release in almost six years, feels like a pair of worn sneakers. It’s easy to slide into, comfy, and probably not as stylish as it would’ve been some years back.
The power-stanced opening riff of “Wasteland” is the Pavlovian equivalent of hearing a can of PBR getting cracked open. (Shit, if that riff is not in fact played with the widest of power stances… my ears have failed me.) When the chugs fly, the vocals bellow and roar, and solos erupt in beautiful flurries, it should be no surprise why you’ll see Mastodon pop up so often in reference to this band. Joseph Eck’s drums are propulsive with very Brann Dailor-like cymbal accents and syncopation, and they really drive home the record’s more expeditious moments while offering smooth shifting between their crushing and spacier moments [dig his work on “S.L.U. (The Hive)”]. Likewise, the gritty crunch of the guitars and bass are matched with spotless cleans and regularly thoughtful interplay, though the dueling leads on the bridge of “Swarm” just may be too Mastodon-y for its own good.
To be fair, it’s not all an epic, bestial expedition rife with Mastodon-isms. The most memorable moments Witch Ripper weave are when they deviate from the hoof-trampled path, though those instances are few and far between. It’s unfortunate there aren’t more ear-piquing movements like the torrential Gojira-like bridge in “Wasteland” or the catchy, wallowing choruses in “The Witch” to mix things up. The furious proggy jam tucked away in the otherwise roiling “Ngenechen” is a thing of pure beauty, and it nicely sets the table for the splintering closing stomp riff. “Sucker Punch” feels like a rhythm-heavy Black Cobra track before it’s swept away by a series of string-melting solos. Really, the only thing Homestead is missing is a few more of those magical “aha” moments and maybe some more melodic moments (an underplayed facet of their sound, no doubt). Additionally, “Bog March” was a super welcome break in the action, something that really helped changed pace from Homestead’s downpour of bone-weakening racket. Compositionally, everything is super tight, dense, and well-structured; it’s just not quite as varied as the classics from which this pulls so much influence.
In a vaccuum, Homestead is a wonderful progressive sludge album. It’s hard to not find it at least little bit derivative, but it’s also hard to deny the face smashing that takes place over Homestead’s speedy 37 minutes. For better or worse, they’ve stacked themselves up right alongside the genre’s defining act. Others have spent time imitating Remission, Leviathan, and Blood Mountain, but it’s never quite captured the spirit of those albums. Witch Ripper, though, seem to have stumbled upon the very same supernatural brew that made Savannah’s Fart Box drivers one of metal’s most dependable brand names. Ultimately, the biggest disappointment about this album is that it didn’t come out years ago. At that time, everybody would’ve spent less time complaining about how Mastodon were becoming dad rock and more time spinning this and shutting the hell up. In short, it’s a fun and familiar ride, but should this Seattle-based foursome stretch out a bit further on their next effort, look the hell out.