Of the several surprises on Boston doomers Blue Aside’s debut EP, The Orange Tree (Hydro-Phonic Records), none struck me more than when I found out there were only three dudes in the band. The layering, specifically in the guitar, and the diversity of the vocal approaches – from death growls to Porcupine Tree-style soothing harmonies and space rock emanations in between – made me sure there were at least four parties involved, if not five. But no, Blue Aside is a trio, boasting ex-members of Palace in Thunderland (the same band from whom sprung Black Pyramid) and Aeolian Race, who came together with a mind toward combining sci-fi lyrics with diverse doom and heavy psychedelia. It’s not a formula that’s never been applied before, but to their credit, I can’t think of a single band out there that sounds like Blue Aside do on The Orange Tree, however genre-ingrained the EP might be.
The five-song, 36-minute EP (for what it’s worth, I probably would have called it a full-length; the fact that Blue Aside didn’t makes me think that when they get around to putting out an LP, it could very well wind up an hour or longer) kicks off with “The Traveler of Time and Space,” the opening riff of which sounds so much like Electric Wizard’s “Witchcult Today” that I was sure Blue Aside were going to turn out to be another in the growing class of occult metal clones – The Orange Tree quickly shifts into different territory. Guitarist Adam Abrams offers some lead lines, and then death metal vocals kick in – all three members of the band are listed as handling vocals, and not having seen them live, I don’t know who contributes which approach – sounding more like Brendan Small’s work in Dethklok than anything else. And that’s not the last time I’m going to make that comparison, either. In no time, though, the track shifts tempo into upbeat space rock to deliver its echoey, clean-sung title line and more soloing from Abrams, backed by the capable tom-work of drummer Matt Netto and the bottom end of Joe Twomey. The second Dethklok comparison comes in the guitars that start second track “Otis’ Sun” (most likely a titular nod at Toronto riff-lords Sons of Otis, whom Blue Aside cite as an influence), which run in multi-layered harmony not unlike the intro to “Go into the Water” from the cartoon outfit’s 2007 debut The Dethalbum, albeit over less active drumming. For what it’s worth, I don’t draw that line in order to poke fun at Blue Aside or anything like that, I’m just trying to give The Orange Tree some context, and certainly the sweetly melodic vocals that kick in on “Otis’ Sun” are all their own.
Death metal vocals return in the song’s more rhythmically turning midsection, and Netto’s drumming again proves able to handle whatever it’s given, a definitively doomed groove emerging from an angular riff that leads into another of Abrams’ increasingly impressive solos. The memorable clean vocals come back again and Blue Aside solo their way into a big rock finish. Already it’s clear The Orange Tree has more to it stylistically than one might initially suspect, but the band is really just getting started when it comes to carving out their multi-faceted approach. The production of the vocals holds back some of the material – it is a first EP, after all – and some of the drums sounds leave something to be desired, but as “Otis’ Sun” bleeds into “Orange Eyes,” I’m too engrossed in what Blue Aside are going to do next to really care about either. They toy with trad-doom and stoner convention on “Orange Eyes,” again changing vocal styles to a gruffer, still clean, delivery, and the nine-minute centerpiece cut proves ultimately to be a highlight of The Orange Tree, Abrams flourishing the song’s transitions with small leads that tell me Blue Aside have given real thought to their arrangements. The acoustic guitars that run concurrent to the electric later in the track are another indication of the band’s depth of approach, and as Twomey runs counter to Abrams’ soloing about six and a half minutes in, it is more or less the moment that makes The Orange Tree. “Orange Eyes” might be the best of the cuts on the EP, but the 6:49 “Black Rays” is about to offer yet another twist.
I couldn’t quite place the opening hits and ‘90s-style feel in the vocals on “Black Rays,” but what I eventually landed on was an Alice in Chains, Dirt, kind of vibe. Definitely darker, definitely grittier than “Orange Eyes,” and as the tempo shifts once again into a faster section (notable that they also stop on a dime to go back to the slow dooming), it seems like if The Orange Tree has a linear, narrative flow – musically, it might – the conflict reaches its head here. Another vocal change in the middle of the song starts to reveal the structures inherent in Blue Aside’s songwriting formula, but it’s notable that instead of going right back to the opening crash hits and guitar/bass plod, the trio first transitions, maybe a little clumsily, into a faster, riffier section marked by the vocal line, “Then we’ll float away/In space/Riding the rays of the sun,” in a mini-chorus offset by shorter verses, only returning to the hits from the beginning by referencing them in the closing seconds of the track. The moves on “Black Rays” don’t work as well as those on “Orange Eyes,” but there’s a different ambience to each song and it’s almost unfair to compare them. Closing movement “The Inevitable Journey” again makes use of the space/sci-fi themes, and in its last minute, brings back the clean harmony vocals to repeat the word “remember” to catchy and blissful effect. It’s a smooth, subtle flourish that once again confirms the prowess at work in Blue Aside’s debut EP.
It would be interesting to catch these guys live and see how much if anything was lost in Abrams not being able to layer his guitar so thickly, and if the delivery overall was more hurried or raw, but as they appear on record, Blue Aside feel like a patient band, conscious of the shifts they’re making and holding onto incredible potential for future growth. As I noted before, the production on The Orange Tree is less than ideal – material like this really begs for an all-out, elaborate presentation – but that doesn’t diminish the obvious quality of the songs. One gets the sense that when Blue Aside put out that pivotal first album, there’s a chance for the band to really accomplish something special and unique. I hope they do, and until then, The Orange Tree has plenty of richness for those sick of the standard fare in either doom or psychedelic rock.Blue Aside, Boston, Hydro-Phonic Records, Massachusetts