What I like best about getting my paws on a debut record is experiencing the twofoldness of the statement that is made on this introduction. The record simultaneously says “this is definitively us” and “this is just the beginning.” (Well, hopefully it’s not the end so soon, right?) Portland quartet Hippie Death Cult succeed in offering confident statements of both of these varieties on their debut, 111. It’s a well-rounded and strong record that drops hints at a more promising future, but not so much that this album will be easily left in the dust.
At this point, you’re likely well aware of what we’re getting into here. The band is called Hippie Death Cult for fuck’s sake. The album art is as throwback and melty as it gets. There’s no mistaking it, this is a seedling from the Sabbathian tree. Now, usually such Sabbath worship begins and ends at the altar of Iommi, but these cats take things a step further, bringing forth lyricism that emphasizes the dismal state of our planet and doesn’t shy away from wearing their politics on their sleeve. There’s plenty of riff face to be made across 111’s 43 minutes, and it’s all pieced together with the care of a much more veteran act. The flow and sequencing are fantastic. Though the album admittedly hovers around slower, glassy-eyed tempos, you can still feel the album become technically richer, compositionally more complex, and more emotionally intense as time goes on.
Opener “Sanctimonious” is essentially Alice In Chains’ “Junkhead” given the Sabbath treatment, which is killer in its own right even if it does sound familiar. Still, it checks the boxes for just about everything you’d want from a modern stoner/doom act. It sounds great, as if designed to showcase the variety of stellar textures at their disposal. Guitars are large and in-charge, oft-layered and dripping with trippy effects; the thick bass roars lay a nice, sturdy foundation; drums deliver a natural warmth and steady, mediating pace; while the keys bring a velour softness into the fray. Vocalist/key tickler Ben Jackson’s old-school bellow falls somewhere on a Venn diagram between Clutch’s Neil Fallon, Graveyard’s Joakim Nilsson, The Sword’s John Cronise, and CCR’s John Fogerty, nicely complementing the bluesy and vintage aesthetic of the record. His work on the keys is understated, yet still vital in rounding out the overall atmosphere and feel of the record.
Guitarist Eddie Brnabic’s fretwork is a different story. He directs much of 111’s hard rocking, taking up the mantle as purveyor of swirling solos, commander of crunch, or distributor of gargantuan riffage. On their longer, more adventurous offerings (dig “Unborn” or “Black Snake”), he has a sneaky way of popping in with a dazzling lead or breaking things up structurally enough that listeners can avoid fatigue. On shorter tracks like “Pigs” and “Treehugger,” there’s a swiftness present that always seems to stem from a smooth intro build and a handful of pop-up leads that expertly detour listeners. It’s a nifty bit of cloak and dagger that keeps things fresh, as is centerpiece “Mrtyu.” It’s an acoustic number that works perfectly to close out side A (or begin side B?), in addition to being a fucking tasty classical guitar jam that speaks to their classic rock roots. Laura Phillips’ is laying down grooves with one of the thickest bass tones out there, and it makes “Mrtyu” stick out that much more. Though Ryan Moore’s drumming is usually on the reserved and frugal side of things, he works in some boisterous grooves (“Breeder’s Curse”), nimble maneuvering (“Black Snake”), and even a little double-kick flourish (“Unborn”) to ramp things up now and then.
While we’re on the topic, closer “Black Snake” is a climactic end that sounds like the band is really hitting their stride, melding their well-treaded classic sound with a less hinged structure and temperament. To put it plainly, it’s a lead-driven track where guitars weave in and out, appearing as mysteriously as they disappear (just dig that gnarly sequence that kicks off at about the 1:40 mark or the closing two minutes). It’s super jammy, but well-paced and still feels quick and slick with a handful of those Deep Purple-esque breaks that made Ritchie Blackmore sound like he was necromancing spirits from the beyond. Jackson is stretched beyond his sultry croon to barbaric yowls, adding an uncommon intensity that’s tough to pull off so convincingly. It’s exactly the kind of track that’ll have listeners pressing play again or perking their ears up for more little clues like this tucked in along the way. Moments like this could be played up a bit more for the sake of breaking from the more “traditional” sounding stoner/doom acts.
So, there you have it. All you dirtbags who relish the sticky fog emanating from the most dedicated temples of Sabbath worship will find your time well spent with 111. Much like last year’s fantastic release from fellow Potlanders Holy Grove, 111 is a high quality release that breaks little ground, but where it does, listeners will certainly latch on and stick around for the next edition. This being said, the degree to which you’ll enjoy this album ultimately depends on how much stoner/doom you can consume. For those who can’t get enough, Hippie Death Cult is a name you won’t soon forget.