There is nothing in the climate of their native Los Angeles that should have Ancestors so sad, but something definitely did the job. On their latest offering, the EP, Invisible White (Tee Pee Records), the five-piece run through three tracks in just over 29 minutes and present atmospheres as gray and melancholic as their artwork would indicate. As on their prior full-length, Of Sound Mind, the interplay of Justin Maranga’s guitar and Jason Watkins’ organ is essential to the sound, but where Ancestors has made a turn since their 2009 outing – and certainly since 2008’s more straightforwardly riffian debut, Neptune with Fire – is in where the progressions lead. Invisible White has more in common with Crippled Black Phoenix or Blood and Time than Sleep, and where the EP most succeeds is in the band’s making “Invisible White,” “Dust” and “Epilogue” grounded and memorable, based on structures that allow the rhythm section of bassist Nick Long and drummer Brandon Pierce to give solidity to Maranga’s, Watkins’ and Moog-er Matt Barks’ explorations.
This is especially true on “Epilogue,” which closes and – somehow fittingly – is nearly as long as “Invisible White” and “Dust” combined. Everyone in Ancestors contributes vocals but Pierce, and on Invisible White, the singing is at its most accomplished yet. Maranga is in the lead spot, but backed and harmonized with skillfully by Long, Watkins and Barks, and though his tonality and phrasing has an underlying element of the heavy stonerisms on which Ancestors cut their teeth, they sound like a completely different band than they did three years ago. It’s hard to get a sense through listening whether Invisible White is a declaration of future intent or a kind of touristic dabbling in influences outside the towering distortion that Of Sound Mind was beginning to pull away from.
Even in the context of the last album, it’s a jump from the heavy parts of “Bounty of Age” to the acoustic-led “Invisible White” or “Dust,” which is even more subdued, but Ancestors do it well, and after defying expectation with their second release – they probably could have put out six more albums that sounded just like Neptune with Fire and kept a solid fanbase – they once again surprise in how cohesive they sound in their progression. The word “visionary” sounds hyperbolic in a way I don’t mean it to be, but it’s clear Maranga and company came into Invisible White with some idea of the mood they wanted to set and how they wanted to do it.
“Dust” is less affecting than the title track, if only for the strength of the opener’s chorus, but it’s worth noting that on both cuts, Barks’ contributions are a huge part of fleshing out the arrangements. On “Invisible White,” it’s a hurdy-gurdy-esque modular synth line (along with Watkins’ organ) and subtle swirl that make the end of the song feel like it’s gone somewhere over the course of its seven-plus minutes, and with about two and a half minutes of its total 7:44 left, “Dust” introduces a piano part that feels like a culmination of the wistful emotionality both that track and “Invisible White” were trying to get across. It’s a skillful, mature arrangement on the part of Ancestors, and mixed impeccably. Long’s subtle bass runs also add flavor to Invisible White’s first half, but it’s on “Epilogue” that he and Pierce are really afforded the opportunity to shine.
Since “Epilogue” is instrumental, and since it’s over 14 minutes long and takes up about half of Invisible White’s runtime, it’s easy to see the EP in vinyl sides A and B, and with that kind of read, Ancestors save their more driving elements for side B. The song never gets heavy in terms of sound, but Pierce propels a build in volume with tom runs that serve also as the rhythmic pulse of the song. It’s a jam, essentially, but with a plotted course and a script to follow, and just where it feels most like Ancestors have lost hold of the track – because it does wander – Maranga overlays a soft, bluesy solo that comes to take charge of “Epilogue”’s last five minutes. If Invisible White has any spiritual redemption or comfort to offer, it’s in this final stretch, with Watkins adding to the fervor and the band as a whole providing suitable punctuation for the statement of the prior two songs.
Invisible White is a surprise, but like Of Sound Mind, a welcome one. If Ancestors’ progression has led them to this point and this is the shift they were waiting to make, their time was not misspent, and if it’s a side-step and their next full-length finds them plugged back in and buried under massive riffage, then no doubt the experience of working with this kind of material will bleed into that process as well, and for the better. Likely they’ll wind up somewhere between those two extremes, and until then, Invisible White is a sad, sad release. Sad enough to earn the violin in the opener. But it’s a good, useful kind of sadness, because Maranga, Long, Watkins, Barks and Pierce are able to cull creative growth from it, and able to convey that growth in the finished product of the EP. Recommended for those willing to take it on with an open mind.Ancestors, California, Los Angeles, Tee Pee Records