As I spend more time with the genre, and grow more disillusioned with it, I find myself asking what exactly draws me to stoner metal, rock, blues, and, most of all, their current iterations. After all, the last decade has seen these genres rise to ascendancy, ushered in by bands like Mastodon and the growing interest in doom. I don’t quite have an answer as to what sets bands I find derivative and bands that I find excellent apart; often times, it’s not their sound itself but rather the way its executed. These genres aren’t exactly going to reinvent the wheel any time soon (except for a few bands who blend them with other genres in interesting ways). So it’s clearly not some departure from the agreed upon tropes of the genre that set the great from the not-so-great. Instead, a certain wildness, a certain agility, a certain loosening of the reins is what separates great stoner/doom/blues metal for me from the chaff floating out there.
Ritual King and their debut, self-titled album is a fantastic example. The tones, the compositions, and the overall aesthetic of the release will be intimately familiar to anyone who has ever sampled stoner or psychedelic music to any extent. However, the music itself has some sort of energy to it, a deep, burning passion that makes every note sing. It’s this energy, hard to quantify, which sets this unabashedly “classic” sounding album apart and raises it to pure ear-worm status. Seriously, it’s been hard for me to step away from this album lately; even when I’m not listening to it, bits and pieces of it play in my head, its sense of joy de vivre and exuberance embedding it deep within my brain. You won’t find me agonizing over every detail trying to coax some hidden, progressive, experimental truth from it but you most assuredly will find me whistling riffs, solos, and vocal lines from it.
The best place to start describing the indescribable sort of energy Ritual King has is probably with the guitar solos on it. These are a nexus of that energy, condensed into more physical and easily ascertainable states. They begin from the get-go, in the form of the explosive solo on “Valley”, the opening track, and chase the album’s tail throughout the run-time, appearing throughout it. Beyond just great tone (and these solos, like all the guitars on the album, have exceptional tone) the solo on Ritual King remind me of Wishbone Ash in their clever communication with the rest of the track. The bass (more on that soon), the drums, the composition, all cleverly work to locate the solo in relation to the rest of the track. This is the hallmark of all great solos, that they are more than just momentary explosions of technicality, but are rather an organic part of the track. This is certainly the case on “Valley” for example, as the solo touches on different parts of the track which came before it, channeling its riffs into new forms.
Of course, the contextualizing of the solo relies on great work from the other instruments, great work which is found in abundance on this album. The bass is loud and prominent in both composition and the mix, as you can clearly hear on the excellent third track, “Headspace”. This is probably my favorite track on the album; the bass veritably sings on it, running through several iterations of the main riff with a pronounced timbre to it and an irresistible agility. Listen near the end of the track for example as little flourishes of the guitar are prefaced or simultaneously echoed by the bass, like movements on the surface of the water which belie motion in the depths below. Naturally, the bass is supported by the drums, crashing cymbals and prominent kick adding that edge to the groove section which is so important in albums such as this.
The final part of the equation are the vocals. These are perhaps best likened to bands like Lo-Pan or Floor in their pop flavor; working on higher pitches, the vocals add much of that energy which I opened this review with. They introduce a sort of freedom in their expression and inflection, coaxing wildness and an open heart from the listener with both lyrics and sound. So, what do you get when you put together loud, fast bass, ripping guitar solos and riffs, punctual drums, and expressive vocals? Exactly that kind of irresistible vibe or groove. Just tune into tracks like “602”, an instrumental number smack in the middle of the album, to feel it. These moments, instruments, and ideas channel the wildness that has always been at the basis of rock n’ roll. Ritual King have so much command of this kind of force that it sets them well apart from their competition, even if none of the musical ideas on the album will blow your compositional minds apart. This is psychedelic rock done just right, speaking to your stomach and your heart, coaxing you to dance and move, burrowing deep into the part of your mind which wants to set loose and offering it a way out.
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Ritual King’s self titled album releases on February 21st via Ripple Music. Make sure to pre-order it via the Bandcamp link above!