Doom album that starts off pretty good, then gets weirder...and better
Pittsburgh doom quartet Horehound got off to a promising start with their self-titled 2016 debut, initially released on vocalist Shy Kennedy's own Blackseed Records and then reissued by Hellmistress Records (with a crushing doom cover of Portishead's "Mysterons" added as a bonus track). That album was a solid, not particularly remarkable, but thoroughly enjoyable doom record, which wisely stuck to the upper end of the genre's often plodding tempo range most of the time. The most obvious flaw on that album was the somewhat sonically claustrophobic production--something one becomes particularly aware off when listening to the reissue and being presented with the far superior recording and mix heard on that Portishead cover at the end of the disc.
My first encounter with the band was their set at this year's inaugural New England Stoner And Doom Festival in Connecticut, where they delivered noticeably more powerful renditions of the debut album's material and treated us to a performance of "L'appel du Vide," a sparse, haunting and powerful dirge typical of this album's slower, heavier, darker (you know... doomier) feel. In most respects, Holocene can be seen as a step up from the band's debut, though something of a tradeoff takes place. One of the strengths of that first album was its immediacy. While the songwriting on that album wasn't the most amazing in the genre, they did show a knack for simple but catchy riffs--which, again also benefited from the band's tendency to avoid the overly slothlike excesses of many other doom bands. This time around, you won't find as many riffs staying in your head for days straight after the first listen, and for better or worse, the pace has definitely been slowed noticeably, allowing for greater use of space and slow, gradual dynamic buildups.
At the start of the album, things don't seem all that different from the debut, aside from the noticeably fuller production. Opening track "The Kind" kicks off with an elegant acoustic guitar intro from guitarist Brendan Parrish, before the rest of the band comes in with a massive doom groove accompanied by a deep, gutteral growl from Kennedy--an element not found on the first album. A reasonably strong but not mind-blowing way to kick off the album. "Dier's Dirge" mines similar territory, but this time with some some tasty, quiet and somewhat clean-toned arpeggiated stuff from Parrish for the song's moody, atmospheric verses. After the aforementioned "L'appel du Vide" (which hasn't changed much from the powerful live rendition I heard earlier this year) comes "The Sloth," an appropriately named monster tale with both riffing and lyrics that remind me of Candlemass--particularly the incarnation of the band fronted by Robert Lowe. Never thought I'd find myself comparing any band's work to that particular era of Candlemass, but I guess there's a first time for everything.
Ok, so this is where things get interesting. The first half of the album is solid, but does not particularly surprise me in any way (apart from those growly vocals, which I'm not entirely sold on). But the aforementioned Candlemass vibe on "The Sloth" marks the beginning of the album's decidely weirder, less straightforward and (in my opinion) more interesting second half. Rhythmically, "Anastatica" offers a slight but welcome change of pace with its triplet feel and slight hint of (doom-filtered) blues in both the vocals and sparse guitar fills that pop in here and there during the verse before another buildup to massive, crushing power chordage transpires. And while Parrish is not one of the most technically dazzling lead guitarists in metal today, his soloing on this song and elsewhere on the album definitely makes for a tasteful contribution that elevates the song just enough. As for album closer "Highball," all I can say is that I still don't know quite what the heck to make of this eccentric monster of a song, but I'm definitely liking it. In fact, I'd argue that it may be the album's standout cut, at least as an indication of the band's creative capabilities. A typically slow groove with a slightly more complex than usual riff gives way to a haunting, ethereal performance from Kennedy, followed by an increasingly bizarre juxtaposition of groove and riff variations from Parrish, bassist Nick Kopco and drummer JD Dauer. It's one of those things you'll have to hear to fully understand what I'm talking about.
And that brings me to something that could easily get overlooked: Dauer in particular shows an impressive ability to use his playing skill to make the songs more interesting, throwing in fills, non-standard ride cymbal patterns and other small but siginificant embellishments that liven up the grooves rather than detracting from them with excess flash. His bandmates are no slouches at this either, and a good grasp of ensemble playing enables them to craft fairly impressive songs with riffs that, in some cases, wouldn't be very remarkable on their own.
I have to say that I initially wasn't as enamoured with this album as I was with their first, but that has begun to change with repeated listens. Whatever one thinks about Holocene, Horehound defintely haven't taken the safe, easy route that a repeat of their debut would have represented. What results is an album that may not appear all that remarkable on the surface, but shows hints of something greater lurking beneath. As solid and powerful as the album is, however, I have the feeling that Holocene may prove to be a mere taste of better things to come from the band.