The premise of a two-piece rock band can present some concerns. Just for lack of sheer people power, duos always have some hurdles to overcome and preconceptions to defy. Will they sound “full” or do they come off as incomplete? How do they incorporate leads without a third player to hold down the fort? Do personell limitations guide their songwriting? Do they crutch on loops, triggers, or other kinds of technological trickery? Honestly, this is all kind of dumb shit to be asking in the first place, as it feels like we’re just trying to sell ourselves short on the idea of a duo before we ever dig in. Instead, it should really be something as simple as: Can they make it work? Fortunately, Seattle drum-and-bass duo Year of the Cobra know how to finesse their shit and give us an emphatic “yes” to the only question that matters. If we boil down what this two-piece is all about, we get to some fairly common stoner rock and doom denominators: big, fuzzy bass riffs, soft/loud dynamism, efficient drumming, entrancing grooves, and sluggish tempos. And though Year of the Cobra check all of these boxes, they’re able to bring just a little bit more to the table by means of smart, lean songwriting, and also by adding a few uncharacteristic wrinkles to the stoner/doom formula.
“The Battle of White Mountain” kicks things off with a Cisnerosian homage where subtle bass quakes awaken to a distorted lurch and eerie croons find themselves nicely contrasting the supremely hefty riffing. Credit to the duo (bassist/vocalist Amy Tung Barrysmith and drummer Jon Barrysmith) for maximizing the tools they have at their disposal, Ash And Dust is a texturally rich affair complete with tasteful leads, soothing melodies, and diverse selections of effects that never succumb to ruminations on amp-stroking distortion or dumbed-down songcraft. It’s immediately apparent that Tung Barrysmith’s exquisite vocals prove to be an ideal match for both cutting through heaps of distortion (“Into the Fray”) and underscoring more delicate and trippy ventures like “Demons” or album closer “In Despair.” Amy’s timbre is a near-Julie Christmas level of sweet and powerful, accommodating to seemingly any purpose in heavy music. On Ash and Dust, she lends a wealth of color across a variety of emotions. From the downtrodden, at-her-wit’s end delivery in the aforementioned “Demons” to her snotty, energetic sneer in the album’s title track; her flexibility gives YOTC an opportunity to touch on a variety of styles and tap into a plethora of emotions with relative ease.
The one-two punch of the lead track and “The Divine” all-but entrench the group as a sludge rock band with a penchant for dreamy atmospheres. Yet, in a stark contrast to these tracks, “Ash and Dust” takes an unexpected turn to fiery hardcore punk. New vehicles like this more aggressive track hold mid-tempo fatigue at bay as well as they grease the wheels of curiosity. Somehow, we shift from questions about their limitations as a duo to: What can’t this duo do? What else are they going to throw my way? The cohesion between their swift, fleeting moments of hardcore punk and melancholic alt-rock dirges at times feels as though we might have someone willing to take up the mantle of Kylesa. It’s effortless and true-to-form. The hooks are whip-smart and poppy melodies keenly thread their way in amongst all the heavy, tying the disparate ends of their sound together as much as they direct the traffic and overall vibe. In turn, it feels like nothing on Ash and Dust happens without rallying around a memorable hook. There’s obvious effort to give each track its own identity, and for the most part, they succeed.
Yet as the album unfolds, YOTC can’t help but return to the comfort of mid-paced stoner/doom standards. It’s a shame, too, because Ash and Dust gets so close to branching off to truly vacant territories – a place where tempo and tone won’t as easily or immediately categorize the group. In comparison to the impressive precedent set on side A, “Into The Fray,” “At The Edge,” and “Dark Swan” feel a little safer and more predictable (though they’re all kickass tracks in their own right). It’s not enough to undo the goodwill they’ve built up for themselves, but the more conventional sludge offerings feel lengthy, turning side B into a belabored experience (especially when you consider the patient, spacy closer). Another zippy number (or two, or three) like the title track could go a long way in breaking up the slog (see: Jucifer, Torche). Sequencing and pacing issues aside, Year of the Cobra’s Ash and Dust is worthy of attention and praise as it cements the group as one to watch in the coming years.
Ash and Dust was released on November 1 via Prophecy Productions.