Last heard from on their 2009 Catacomb Records split with avant doomers Queen Elephantine, the UK stoner doom outfit Alunah now follow with their first full-length, Call of Avernus. Also released through Catacomb, Call of Avernus follows a 2007 demo and the 2008 Fall to Earth EP and features almost exclusively new material from the double-guitar four-piece, centered much around the riffs and vocals of frontwoman Sophie, who finds herself in the forward position across the nine tracks and respectable 49-minute runtime. Alunah, who formed in 2006 and added the ‘h’ to the end of their name sometime thereafter, straddle the line between the heavier end of stoner rock and more doomed atmospheres. Sophie and fellow guitarist Dave create a wall of impenetrable fuzz like Fu Manchu did in their unabashed heyday, but the building those walls construct is different and far less laden with California sunshine and a friendly surf mentality.
Although it feels like a superficial comparison to make, I’d be remiss if I didn’t liken Alunah to the classic work of Acid King, who walked a likeminded line stylistically and with whose vocalist, Lori S., Sophie shares more than a passing similarity in tone and cadence. Highly reverbed laid back female stoner vocals; it’s not an influence I begrudge Sophie or Alunah, and if anything I think it works mostly in the band’s favor throughout Call of Avernus – most especially on centerpiece cut “Eternal Sea” – but it had to be said. The main riff of that song reminds of the bassline in “Southern” from Alunah’s UK countrymen Trippy Wicked and the Cosmic Children of the Knight (whether or not the two bands know each other, I have no idea), but I expect that’s more coincidence than anything else. If from all this you’re getting the impression Alunah aren’t exactly original, you’re right, but more importantly, if you listen to Call of Avernus — in either the opener “Living Fast in an Ancient Land,” which starts out with a doomy bass rumble from Gaz (I’m convinced no UK stoner band is complete without a dude named Gaz) before Sophie and Dave join in, or the mid-paced Sabbath groove of the title track – and you try to think of bands who are proffering this kind of unabashed stoner riffage these days, it’s going to be a short list.
Alunah are true to the ethic of stoner doom in a way few bands are, and yeah, Call of Avernus has its derivative moments, but rather than be caught up in them, I find I’m glad there’s someone out there making use of the style. While so many others are tripped up in trying to nail down this or that one-band subgenre, Alunah are worshipping the riff and hailing the leaf in classic fashion. Catchy album highlight “Song of the Sun” previously appeared on the Queen Elephantine split and on the 2007 Crystal Voyage demo, but it’s a welcome inclusion here, and placed well early into the record, which then cuts out the riff rock chicanery for a quiet two minutes with “Magick Lantern.” It’s kind of a funny track, and I think Alunah could probably have done more with it, built it into something bigger, but they seem impatient to get back to the rock with “Eternal Sea.” Drummer Jake is more suited to the heavier material, but he does well in the quieter atmosphere as well. Once “Eternal Sea” has carried into Call of Avernus’ second half, “Dance of Dionysus” reaffirms the stoner doom middle-ground the earlier portion of the album set. It was bound to be a comedown after “Eternal Sea,” but the shuffle groove is a good time nonetheless, and while neither Sophie or Dave is a shredder, the solo toward the end of the track does well to shake things up. “Circle of Stone” makes use of long instrumental passages and a killer bassline from Gaz interspersed with short vocal sections, while the shorter “Higher,” though it shows some of the unipolar side to Sophie’s approach singing-wise, grooves like a bastard in its chorus thanks to Jake’s ready crash cymbal.
Call of Avernus and Alunah make their exit with “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,” based around one of the album’s strongest riff progressions. A break in the middle gradually unveils the cowbell (classy of them to hold off till the last track for it) or something percussive thereabouts, and one of the record’s most potent sections. Alunah aren’t looking to reinvent stoner rock, but what they signal is the development of “traditional stoner” as a subset within the umbrella of the genre. By adhering as strictly to these genre characteristics as they do, Alunah manages to carve out a niche for themselves exactly by blending in. On the other hand, their lack of adherence to the current trends in underground heavy rock makes them a standout on the international scene, and backed by the strong performances on Call of Avernus, I’ve no doubt they’ll be able to develop further on subsequent offerings. It will be interesting to hear just how they come into their own, and after Call of Avernus, I look forward to discovering how that plays out.
Tags: Alunah, Catacomb, UK