Sunday, 13 October 2013

Windhand - Soma (album review)

Album artwork by Krist Mort & Jacob Speis.
What I liked about 'Windhand', the Virginia quintet's eponymous full-length debut from last year, more than anything was the Halloween feel of it.  Dorthia Cottrell's unique and distantly haunting voice was androgynous enough to cloak the music in a shroud of eerie mystery, not unlike the air that Uncle Acid evokes for his band.  There was a sense of evil to the record, but it was a fun  kind of evil, like the 1989 movie The Burbs.  While the band retains a similar flavor on 'Soma', the overall feeling is more akin to the 1985 movie Fright Night, having a slightly more earnest edge to it, but like Fright Night, it suffers from a weak final act.

If you were expecting six more "Black Candles", you may be slightly disappointed, though not initially.  As an overall thing, the mood of the album picks up from where the band left off on their colossal split, 'Reflections of the Negative' with Cough, which was bruising and uncompromising in its sludgeoning enormity (see my review here).  Of course, 'Soma' is neither beholden to the mood of 'Reflections' nor does it play out like an arrow, on a single trajectory in a straight line.

As the album opens, "Orchard" resets things in a "Black Candles" vein.  Cottrell is a ghost, mournful and wailing.  The guitars are the creaking floorboards of an abandoned house and the drums are a battering storm.  This is why Windhand is loved and why, despite being a doom band, they are the toast of the heavy metal underground as a whole.  At least, it's my impression that they are.  Windhand can lift the listener up to moonlit cliffs, then push them off without even the slightest touch.  "Woodbine" has the incredible ability to simulate freefall, or at the very least, the feeling of floating down from the edge of the sky on a chaotic gale, and amazingly, at nine minutes and change, never overstays its welcome.  Keep this in mind moving forward.

Before she joined the band, Dorthia Cottrell was a singing / songwriting artist in her own right.  Haunting and earthy acoustic folk is her stock in trade and we get a taste of it here with "Evergreen".  The man behind Hand of Doom radio played me some of her solo stuff and it was as dark as could be expected, but it wasn't Windhand dark, it was its own thing.  Cottrell does her acoustic thing on "Evergreen" and it sends the album into an abrupt u-turn.  This isn't a Cottrell solo track grafted jaggedly onto this otherwise consistent album, it retains the Windhand feel.  Somehow, it belongs.  The sequencing is a bit strange with it stuck in the middle of the album like this, but I'll not second guess the decision-making behind it.  I do however, question some of the decisions made with 30 minute closing track "Boleskine".

Boleskine was the name of the Scottish manor Aleister Crowley once owned.  Many a ritual was performed there and it is speculated among "certain groups" that perhaps George H. W. Bush was conceived there.  It was later purchased by Jimmy Page.  There's a pretty cool BBC documentary about it that you can find on youtube.  Anyway, "Boleskine", the song.  Right.  This thing.  I've got to admit, listening to it a second time, about 12:41 into it and I'm actually quite digging the vibe here.  With a three minute atmospheric introduction, that makes for a solid, if slow (though not sluggish) nine minute song that has a good shift during the chorus.  Nine minutes is a good length for a doom song.  Gives the riff the opportunity to graft onto the listener's mind and bore directly into the brain.  But the song doesn't end there.  It slides off into a quiet droney section when you realize that there's still some 17 minutes left of this piece and let it be known, nothing much happens in those final 17 minutes.  The riff drones on and on for some 10 minutes or so with no variation until a heavy whistling wind picks up as the tune fades out ... and then there's still about another five minutes to go.  I mean, in a way, I get it.  It's a way to let the final riff sink in deeply and let the listener down gently while leaving you with the impression of having just listened to a sweeping epic.  I think I'll use my audacity program to edit this 30 minute monster down to its essential nine.  We could discuss the modern attention span and the fact that there are longer songs out there.  Look at Acid Mother Temple for example with their over-an-hour-long songs/albums.  A man with a Broken Beard once told me that there's an 11 HOUR long song out there, and if that isn't the height of pretention then there is no such thing.  Comparatively, "Boleskine" is a drop in the bucket, yet at a full 30 and a half minutes, it's too long.  It's just too long and that final quarter hour mars an otherwise five star album.

If this were a five song, 45 minute album, it would be rated higher, even an hour long six track album with the final number edited down would have left a better aftertaste, but when a single song comprises roughly 40% of a 75 minute album, and that song doesn't do too much, it cripples the overall impact of the thing.  This band has a great album on their windy hands.  "Boleskine" would have been a cool song had it been released on its own, much like Monster Manget's '25 Tab' EP or had it been edited down.  As it stands I can always skip the last track or I could give it a few more goes and see what happens.  I probably won't though, that editing idea sure sounds good.  Anyway, I think Windhand will survive my 4 star review because despite the album's overly long coda, 'Soma' is still essential listening.

Highlights include: "Orchard" and "Cassock"

Rating: 4/5

Total Run Time: 1:15:08

Asechiah Bogdan: Guitar
Parker Chandler: Bass
Dorthia Cottrell: Vocals
Garrett Morris: Guitar
Ryan Wolfe: Drums

From: Richmond, Virginia

Genre: Doom, Folk, Sludge

Reminds me of: Blood Ceremony, Goya, Electric Wizard, Mount Salem, Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats

Release Date: September 24, 2013

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