I’ve spent. a lot time thinking about stoner metal/rock (OK, not a lot of time, but some time, give me a break here). Specifically, I’ve been thinking on what makes me listen to the albums that I do choose to listen to extensively from the genre. After all, the genre itself is infamously crowded with copy-cats, derivative musicians, and an overall feeling of staleness, as if the 60’s and the 70’s never happened. There are artists which almost everyone recognizes as rising above that but, in general, people tend to throw this genre into the waste-bin of history and, to be honest, I don’t really disagree. As a whole. But I still feel like there are some releases within the genre that are worthy of our time. Innovation or experimentation is not exactly what sets them apart; stoner, doom, desert, psychedelic rock or whatever you want to call these sounds are not exactly sought after for how much they push the envelope.
I think that a better category to “catch” this kind of music that still interests me is wildness. It’s possible to play the same exact riff in a boring way and an interesting way. The latter explores the boundaries of the musical idea, with tone or with a different kind of execution, and makes it feel passionate, wild, and free even if the mathematics show the exact same riff or idea being played. Of course the problem with stoner is not really that the same exact riff is played but that the same kind of milieu or style is used to generate the music, to draw ideas from, and that creates sameness. But the principle of wildness still holds true; you can grab your ideas from the same toolbox but if you use them with flair, you’ll sound better than the next band down the line.
I swear I’m getting to the album, here we go: High Priestess‘s latest release, Casting the Circle, is a great example of that sense of wildness. The band’s second album achieves this wildness with two tools: the first is deep, satisfying harmony on the opening tracks of the release. The second is a sense of unfettered improvisation and scope on the seventeen minute long “Invocation”, which dominates the second half of the album. Through both of these approaches, Casting the Circle shows us how a band can operate within the established boundaries of their genre (in this case, a kind of psychedelic doom) and still inject their sound with a fresh, engaging, and interesting sort of sound.
So, first: the harmonies. Perhaps the best example of this is on the track “The Hourglass”. Starting with a slow riff combined with old-school synths, the track sounds like what you might expect a band called High Priestess to make. Everything fits into place well but it’s when the vocals arrive that the track’s true power is revealed. The main line is also slow ponderous but, along its heights, it is backed by excellent vocal lines. The harmonies created here are just great to listen to; the backing vocals are interesting enough to warrant attention, made up of interlacing tracks and timbres. But they’re also dedicated enough to the main progression of the track that you can just sit back and let them wash over you, enchanted by their beauty, without any further analysis. These backing vocals are, of course, only as powerful as the main vocals and those are magnificent as well, bringing to full fruition the sounds and ideas which make up the meat of the track.
Throw in a killer guitar solo, some punchy drums, and present bass and you have one hell of a ticket to ride, a ticket which brings us right to “Invocation”. This aforementioned track is High Priestess letting loose, creating a sprawling epic chock full of solos, beguiling riffs, vocal styles, and an overall feeling of improvisation. Here, those wild energies that were hinted at along the solos of the previous track are given flight and full control, lending the track an energy that is extremely hard to resist. Everything is still coached in the smoked out, psychedelic vibes of the rest of the album but instead of feeling like you’re in a cathedral, with harmony reverberating around you, you get the feeling you’re on the verge of some sort of tribal dance, a great catharsis, an unleashing. The track goes many places, some heavier (like the absolutely crushing riff near the nine minute mark) or the tripped out beginning passages but whatever it does, it does with a sort of unrestrained passion that’s a joy to hear.
“Invocation” lands us on the cheeky and ethereal “Ave Satanas” (a sort of slowed down, psychedelic version of Mozart’s famous treatment of the idea) and the album’s end. My fingers tickle to write the usual rejoinder at the outset of stoner/doom/psychedelic album reviews, something about how this album doesn’t break any molds but is still a fun ride. But I’m really tired of writing that; the fact is, that’s not what I listen to these genres for. I listen to them to be transported, to let my inner animal loose, to revel in feedback, and in occult imagery done well, beyond usual cheesiness, done in earnest. If that’s what you’re looking for your in your fuzzy music then you’ve come to the right place: Casting the Circle has all of that in droves.
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Casting the Circle releases on April 10th via the incredible Ripple Music. Head on over to the Bandcamp page above to pre-order it.