What ever happened to unpredictability? The Baroness, the Mastodon, when they were sneaky. You miss those old familiar bands, waiting just around the bend. Now though they’re everywhere you look, they’re quite different from their reckless and wild beginnings. They reigned it in. They matured. It’s nonsensical to argue that this is a bad thing, but somewhere over the last fifteen or so years, everyone decided there wasn’t any meat on them bones and hit up greener pastures. This is all fine and dandy, but I think there’s something to be said for going back to the roots and forging your own path from there. Fortunately, the dudes from Grogus are well-equipped for such a challenge and take upon this progressive sludgy quest with their latest, Four Kings. They’re wily. They’re squirrely. Basically playing soothsayer as they write, they evade expectations and strike the moment your guard is down, gestating the same feelings we all had in the early 2000s when the aforementioned big dogs weren’t so focused on creating palatable material. In this sense, it’s very much the progressive sludge of yesteryear, but it’s still so much more.
Instead of the guitar-driven noodly leads and switchback snaking of Savannah’s sludge purveyors, Grogus find more tonal similarities with the elephantine power Aaron Turner’s projects. Much of Four Kings displays a similar affinity for the dissonant and knotty grooves of Sumac without the abstracted and improvised tendencies of their recent output. In this absence, though, is an anxious urgency and momentum that nudges listeners along this volatile journey. Sure, there are moments where their creepy lurch finds a capacious hollow (as found at the midpoint of “An Oceantomb of Centipedes” or album centerpiece “Goat Temple”), but their progressive tendencies more often than not demonstrate a hunger to trip up listeners, pushing them into the deep end on the next gnarly labyrinth and wasting little-to-no time on getting to the next one. It’s difficult to call to mind anyone who is able to take glacial sludge and give it such immediacy and efficiency.
It’d be irresponsible to ignore the opportunity to fawn over the ridiculous amount of beefy fucking riffs happening, well, constantly. They’re intricately tied together, and more importantly, the development and evolution of these riffs is equally enjoyable and mentally taxing. While often grueling and punishing, they’re never beaten into the dirt or worn out. (My initial experiences were often a variation on this line of thinking: Is this just a tag at the end of this passage, or is this going somewhere? Wait, is this really going somewhere, or is this some kind of psych-out joke? Yeah, this has gotta be a trick. Oh, holy shit, this is going somewhere!) Tempos slyly shift and dirges emanate from shambling, rollicking hardcore; post-metal detours sprout up without notice, and yet there are no airs of tacky or plugged-in cheap shots. In spite of how cumbersome I may be describing it, it’s all very organic and effortless.
All of this hulking, seismic riffage is piled upon on drumming that’s idyllically restrained: stomp riffs are belabored with an ever-colossal pounding and weird-timed grooves are often pared back to flex the amplified muscle (the closing riff “An Augur of Ebrietas” is the sonic equivalent of a breaking wheel). The points where hefty lockstep is broken however, either through tasteful use of blasts or dexterous fills, highlight the burls of the riffing through every turn – the dude’s playing is just buttery smooth and rich, and it excels at putting their sonic heft at the forefront. That is, until “Goat Temple.” The nearly nine-minute ambient centerpiece is a meditative sanctuary that intertwines cascades of amplified groans, cavernous swells of guitars, a smattering of cymbals, and precipitous percussion into a beautiful reprieve from the burdensome and crushing weight of the rest of the record. Still, this refreshing zen still feels at home among the ear-twisting chugs and warped pathways. It’s weird and it shouldn’t work but it totally does.
The mix is noticeably cleaner than their debut and they’ve gotten savvier about picking their points compositionally; everything has been tightened up but a smidge – but like a well-seasoned cast iron pan – it’s a tangible improvement and and encouraging development for future output. Honestly, there are a number of times where listeners may find themselves throwing up their hands or just laughing at the hurdles Grogus navigate, but the challenge isn’t without reward. There’s a definite learning curve to their style, where initially so many of these passages seem to come with a barb, an awkward time signature, or an unexpected variation that pulls your ear further than you’d think possible. But once this horse is broken, it’s a helluva ride.
Four Kings is available digitally and on cassette via Tridroid Records right now.