I know I’ve discussed on multiple occasions the fallacy of objectivity in criticism. It’s kind of a sticking point for me. Ostensibly, I don’t even need to acknowledge it — most people who review albums certainly don’t — but the question continues to linger: “How the hell am I supposed to decide whether a given band’s record is good or not if I like it so damn much?”
That’s oversimplifying. In the case of A.D., which is the first full-length from New Jersey doomers Solace since 2003’s 13 (2007’s The Black Black EP and 2005’s split with the now-defunct Greatdayforup providing odd-yeared stopgaps/notice that the band was still active), I’m a longtime fan of the band, I’ve known the guys for years and I was with guitarists Tommy Southard and Justin Daniels at Mad Oak Studios in Allston, MA, while the record was being mixed. I had sentimental attachment to these songs before I even heard them in their finished, mastered form. Now I’m supposed to write a review? How is that even fair?
Of course, it’s easily enough ignored. A review could easily be written full of blanket praise for A.D., which is Solace’s debut on new label Small Stone Records. It would be simple to do that, especially feeling the way I do about the album, and especially given the hard time I’m having even composing a sentence acknowledging that there are choppy moments in the recording that come out on repeat listens. Let it be said, however, that I have nothing really to gain from kissing Solace’s ass. My opinions are as irrelevant as they are wordy, and I doubt very much if anyone in the band’s afternoon hinges on my judgment of their performance on the record.
So, now that I’ve had the weekend to properly agonize over it, and realizing that I’m, in fact, only accountable to myself, please find enclosed the following review of Solace’s A.D.:
Setting aside the anticipation in the stoner/doom community for this album — I don’t think I’m the first person to refer to it as “Chinese Doomocracy” or to suggest to the band they have t-shirts printed with the album cover on front and the words “Coming Soon” on back — what we’re given in the final version of A.D. is a collection of nine tracks of pure American heavy doom. Solace have never been shy about veering into and out of stoner rock convention, and they do so deftly on their latest as well, with opener “Disillusioned Prophet” boasting a solo that calls out Tony Iommi’s from “Heaven and Hell” shortly before uni-monikered vocalist Jason comes on with some of the track’s most powerful singing. Songs like “Six Year Trainwreck” mark themselves out with memorable riffing and interplay between Southard and Daniels’ lead work. At their heart, Solace is still very much a guitar band.
That said, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the time that’s passed since 13, and the inevitable growth the players have undergone since then. A.D. is unquestionably Solace’s most elaborate, constructed work to date. A song like “The Immortal, the Dead and the Nothing” comes on with multiple layers of both vocals and guitar, and it’s clear even listening to the song’s progression and smooth rhythm changes that A.D. is a studio record, it sounds like a studio record, produced. That doesn’t lessen the impact of any of these songs in terms of how hard they hit, but having seen Solace on multiple occasions, I’m never going to confuse A.D. for a live record. Particularly in terms of Jason’s vocals, the complex arrangements in the layering would simply be impossible to duplicate live, and the same applies to the interweaving of acoustic and electric guitars that can be heard throughout “The Immortal, the Dead and the Nothing” and elsewhere. One can imagine, though, that after seven years Solace wanted to make as rich and complete an album as possible, sacrificing nothing in terms of their vision for how these tracks should sound. Their success in that regard can’t be assessed by anyone on the outside, but I will say there’s nothing on A.D. that feels incomplete or wanting further embellishment.
Apart from the later hardcore nod “The Skull of the Head of a Man,” all the songs on A.D. top five minutes, and I think the album really hits its stride with “Za Gamman,” which dials back the production in favor of a more straightforward approach to the doom rock of which the band’s foundation is made. Here the songwriting takes center stage and bassist Rob Hultz and drummer Kenny Lund (since replaced by Keith Ackerman) get some more opportunity to stand out in the mix. The song is catchy, and without asking too much of the listener, provides a stylistic offset from the quick changes in parts and tempos.
Beginning with Hultz’s bass, light guitar work, whispered vocals and some atmospheric noise, “Borrowed Immunity” seems to come on in medias res when the riff kicks in, but quickly ropes the listener with an insistent rhythm and mid-range vocals from Jason. Like “Za Gamman,” “Borrowed Immunity” is memorable in a verse/chorus sense, but with about a minute left, the track gets into a heavy build — Lund putting double bass to good use — and caps off by reintroducing the elements from its start. These in turn set up “Down South Dog,” a boogie riff the upbeats of which are peppered with leads and smooth transitions while Jason self-harmonizes, calls, responds and works quickly to make the song an A.D. highlight. Stretching for just over eight minutes and coming on in several movements rather than repeated parts, the song is nonetheless like flypaper on the brain and utterly satisfying in itself.
“Vulture” [Note: that may be a partial or incomplete title] introduces the album’s end portion with a meaty riff and thick bass tone, falling in line with “Za Gamman” and “Borrowed Immunity” as some of the less elaborate material arrangement-wise, but is maybe the most singly groove-based song on the album. More solo interplay from Southard and Daniels leads into a chorus, more riffing and a big rock finish that sets the stage for the ultra-aggressive “The Skull of the Head of a Man.” Harmonized guitars introduce the song with ringing notes, but it’s East Cost hardcore for about two solid minutes after that as Solace shows their punk and scene roots. Jason’s vocals are shouts almost exclusively until some clever arranging at the end of the song provides one the album’s best hooks over the break beat, repeating the title line to great effect.
And because it was bound to happen eventually, we close A.D. with “From Below,” the longest song at a weighty 9:53, again introduced by Hultz (and after “The Skull of the Head of a Man,” a second to breathe is most welcome) in similar fashion to “Down South Dog.” Jason’s vocals provide the build that will lead the song to it’s kick-in past the 1:15 mark, and right away, we know Solace are ending on one of their heaviest and darkest songs. There are some changes in pace, but “From Below” is doom — period. Solace align themselves with the great names in American riff metal with ease and meet the lofty expectations A.D. has had placed on it since its first reported release date in 2007. The track, like the album itself, is diverse but engaging and even with some soft wah work halfway through is totally willing to bring the listener along through its twists and turns. Appropriately, it takes an angrier direction toward its close, Jason leading the charge with more throaty shouting at about 8:30 into A.D.’s triumphant payoff and apex. It is no mystery why the band chose to end with “From Below,” as putting anything after the last minute and a half of the song would have just been silly.
…And then they’re done.
By way of wrapping up — if such a thing is possible at this point — I’d like to remind again that, as a Solace fan, my opinions are colored and shaped by that fandom. When I say A.D. was worth the wait, understand that I’ve actually been waiting, watching as release dates came and went, imagining what these songs could possibly sound like after so long. Well, after spending time with them and trying to understand where Southard, Daniels, Jason, Hultz and Lund were coming from at the several intervals spaced out over the years during which the album was recorded, I can only try to muster what little impartiality is left and say that when 2010 is over, A.D. will have been a defining moment in underground heaviness. If you’re still reading this, I can’t imagine you need me to tell you not to miss it, but just in case: Don’t.
Tags: New Jersey, Small Stone, Solace