Monday, 26 November 2012

Ice Dragon - Tome of the Future Ancients (album review)

Ice Dragon may be the most interesting band in the world of stoner doom.  Eight releases (3 full-length albums, 2 split singles, one EP as alter-ego Tentacle, one double-sided single and a compilation appearance) under their belt for the calendar year of 2012 (so far) and each one lays out a completely different soundscape from the last one.  That being the case, not every release is going to appeal to everyone, they are a challenging band that does not compromise for expectations, they do their own thing and I may not love everything they do, but I love them for that.  This is one of those albums that I found difficult to get into.  The songs were too long, too slow, too drony, too repetitive.  Nothing really stood out and demanded my attention.  "The Bearded Mage", my lone 'single' did nothing in the Doom Charts.  But Ice Dragon was one of those bands that got me into this genre of music in the first place with their song "Hexagon Riders" and there's no denying the quality, dedication or genuineness of this band, so I stayed loyal  and followed every release with great interest.  Tome of the Future Ancients was quickly buried under the pile with very few plays and forgotten, collecting electronic dust on the virtual shelf.

Fast forward to November and the band changed the artwork on Tome from the boring 'placeholder' white text on black square with white border artwork to “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” (1905) by Edward Fitzgerald and suddenly the album came alive, it generated enough interest in the album that it was time to give it another spin.  Stupid as it sounds, artwork is often surprisingly married to how one feels about an album.  Cheap or crappy artwork is going to create the subconscious impression that the music is cheap and crappy.  Great or very appropriate artwork adds to the listening experience.  Some albums sound red (Master of Puppets) because they have a red motif in the artwork and some albums sound purple (Ride the Lightning) because the artwork is purple and so on.

One more note in this pre-amble.  Sometimes, a huge factor in whether or not one is going to be convinced by an album is whether or not their musical palette is simply ready for the new sounds.  When Tome came out, I wasn't 'ready' for this album.  My tastes and understanding were not sophisticated enough to appreciate this album.  I wasn't prepared for the wavering and ethereal nature of Ice Dragon's constantly changing output. That may sound like ass-kissing, but it's not.  It's still a difficult and challenging album because the songs really are a bit too long, slow, repetitive and drony for someone just looking for a hooky paranoid hit along the lines of a "Hexagon Riders".  When I look at the tracklist and see the length of songs, usually I'm expecting multi-textural variation in the longer recordings and that's not what you get here.

There are four pieces on this album that I would consider to be ambient 'interludes': "Man Sitting in a Field of Green Grass", "Astronomical Union", "Crystal Countdown Into Alpha" and closing track "Infinite Requiem".  Simply put, I did not dig these on first listen.  I wasn't expecting them.  Again, I'm always on the look-out for paranoid hits and when I saw the shorter length of these tracks I thought, these might be the songs I was looking for.  I couldn't have been further off and the fact that I was looking for something in particular compounded my disappointment.   I have learned throughout the year that if you try to pigeonhole this band, they will leave you choking on their dust because they're always five steps ahead of you.  Fast forward once again to Greyblackfalconhawk, another challenging album, and the ambient 'interlude' pieces are my favorite moments on the album.  Go figure, this is Ice Dragon.

It had been months since I pulled this album off the virtual shelf and gave it it's last spin.  I don't know what happened exactly in the intervening months, but a change had taken place.  Maybe it's just having heard a mountain of music of all shapes, lengths and sizes that was both good and bad that provided some much needed perspective.  Perhaps it was getting to know the band and understanding their classification-defying iconoclasm a bit better.  Or maybe my expectations were so low going back that I couldn't help but have my doors blown off.  Whatever it was that happened in the meantime, it worked in Tome of the Future Ancients' favor.

What this album does give the listener is a more than satisfying collection of good old fashioned doom riffs.  Slow, heavy, drony and repetitive.  The distortion is dialed way up and the tone is thick, heavy and pretty low.  When the riffs are this good, just let them run.  "Manuscript 408", "NATIAIWS", "Illuminations Foretold", "Night", "The Bearded Mage" and "Steal Away From Hell" are among the best of them.  "Steal Away From Hell" may feature the most lively guitar riff on the album and as counterpoint the drums are played at snail's pace, until the bridge and chorus speeds things up to a crawl that feels like light speed compared with the verse and the rest of the album.  "The Black Book of Hours" features a Gregorian chant type chorus, followed by a spoken word growl.  For those interested, the song was inspired by a 15th century illuminated manuscript called "Black Hours", a digital facsimile of which can be found at this link, courtesy of the band via their Facebook page.

The song "Night" is a great track, a new favorite from the album with yet another terrific dark doom riff, but it's the sample at the very end of the song that's been stuck in my head since I first heard it, now so many months ago.  A train is heard and a man shouts "Goodnight world ... Goodnight world, YOU MUTHAFUCKA!!!".  Don't know where the sample comes from, but I absolutely love it.  "The Bearded Mage" is still a standout too after all these months, a crushing riff that ascends like a roller coaster for the chorus and some nice improvised fretwork after the hook provides some extra color to a largely monochrome affair.

In the beginning, I disliked the album because the songs were too long, slow, drony and repetitive, but I wasn't meeting the band halfway.  They weren't doing what I wanted from them and I turned away.  In the end, the songs are long not because they are packed to the brim with complicated structures and multidimensional musical ideas, but because the band plays these monstrous riffs in a slow and absolutely crushing style.

Highlights include: "The Bearded Mage" and "Night"

Original Rating: 3/5 - New Rating: 4.5/5

Total Run Time: 1:16:09

From: Boston, Massachusetts

Genre: Doom Metal, Psychedelic, Sludge

Reminds me of: Tentacle

Release Date: March 20, 2012

Suggested listening activity for fellow non-stoners: spending a good portion of eternity in a cave with Alhazred, the mad Arab, manically scribbling tomes of future ancients as penance for wasting so many months without fully embracing this album.

Better Reviews
Broken Beard
Dr Doom's Lair

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