20 Buck Spin
3/6/2009 - Review by: Etiam
Kansas' Samothrace is the perfect representative for the suddenly successful 20 Buck Spin Records. Begun in 2005, the label primarily represents American sludge and doom bands (the most notable exception being the best-selling Coffins from Japan) with a boutique aesthetic similar to the reclusive Profound Lore or even the Oaken Throne 'zine for black metal. As a band from the Heartland that can make crusty atmospheric metal sound somehow refined, Samothrace are the perfect fit.
Many bands in this style employ riffs that adhere almost exclusively to slow 'n' low tempos, only speeding up for overdubs of reverb-laden tremolo. The resulting gap--a relative moderato between forty and eighty-four bpm--is full of dynamic and emotional potential, and it is here that Samothrace ply their 'Life's Trade'. To be sure, the album still focuses on boot-dragging doldrums, but Samothrace is decidedly more than just doom. With riffs that resonate in the head instead of the gut, they are closer to a soundscape band that went sludge and caught a case of the blues.
Enhancing the albums' natural dynamics is Sanford Parker's enveloping production, completed analogue at Semaphore Studios in Chicago. The guitars transition smoothly from gainy rumbling on open strings to warm soloing up around the 12th fret, each distinct tone supporting the other without obscuring it. Though Joe Noel isn't spotlighted too frequently on drums, he makes his presence felt with a consistent low cymbal hiss and tight snare accents. On vocals (and guitar), Brian Spinks has a patient delivery that stretches out syllables over entire phrases. His voice can be unexpectedly harsh, ranging into a high wail that tears from his throat without being shrill. Dylan Desmond's six-string bass is far less independent, but provides a warm and consistent buffer for the free explorations above it. Even if one can't pick out every bassline or be flattened by the kick drum, each element of the mix contributes to an organic and unified whole.
Many riffs are harmonized between Spinks and second guitarist Renata Castagna, and at regular intervals one or both will meander off into blues pentatonic noodling. During these lead passages--e.g. 9:00 on 'Cacophony'--Desmond's snaky bass is much more audible. And, though a number of Southern sludge bands have been mixing major phrasings with minor parent keys for years, it's still a pleasure to hear doom-oriented tracks that don't shun major harmonies like Satan's seal. On closer 'Cruel Awake', the aforementioned tremolo swell does make an appearance, but one cannot count it against Samothrace, as it is an exquisite tool of the genre when used sparingly. Here, it is used to offer a final counterpoint and timely treble end to the slow drizzle of the prior three tracks.
'Life's Trade' is indeed long--four tracks and nearly 50 minutes--but is consistently driven and rarely superfluous, with all songs falling in between 9:59 and 13:33. While portions of the closer drag, as do a select few other points on the album, the album is nonetheless more manageable (or 'listenable') than one would first expect. With a clear sense of identity and focused songwriting, Samothrace's 'Life's Trade' bridges the gap between Baroness and Electric Wizard. In the process, they're finding a niche all their own.
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