For nearly seven years, my measuring stick for Small Stone debuts has been the first, self-titled Sasquatch album, and each new band that’s come along on the label (there have been plenty) since then, I’ve said, “Well, okay, but is it as good as the Sasquatch?” Listening to Lo-Pan’s Salvador – which, admittedly, is their third album following a self-titled and the excellent Sasquanaut which Small Stone re-released late last year – I might have to revise my comparison point. I was fortunate enough to hear rough mixes of Salvador back in December, and even as rough as those tracks were compared to the finished product I’m reviewing now, it was clear that the Columbus, Ohio, band, the label, and anyone who would seek it out to listen, had something formidable on their hands. I don’t want to get lost in hyperbole or overestimate the appeal of the record, but Lo-Pan’s Salvador has all the makings of a classic in the genre.
The single-guitar four-piece present 11 tracks in just under 46 minutes, and nearly each one of them is perfectly memorable (I’m not counting “Intro,” though even the riff to that is catchy), varied in its approach and masterfully written. The guitars of Brian Fristoe are unrepentantly fuzzed out, and his riffs are heavy rock of the highest order, and Jeff Martin’s soulful, wonderfully melodic and inventive vocals cut through the thickness just right, followed by Skot Thompson’s running bass and the center-stage drums of J. Bartz. Having seen them live on more than one occasion, Lo-Pan is one of those bands where each element involved in the making of the songs just works so well, and on Salvador, not only are those elements working, but they’re working together. You can listen to any part of any song on this record and say, “That’s killer,” or you can listen to how the parts interact with each other and say the same thing. It comes down to this: if you’re not coming out of Salvador glad to have heard it, it’s your own fault.
Lo-Pan open uptempo with the duo of “El Dorado” and “Bleeding Out,” the two cuts together totaling a little over six minutes. “El Dorado” is the snap in your face to wake you up, and with “Bleeding Out,” the pattern is established; thick riffs, infectious choruses, soaring, confident vocals, tap-worthy snare. Both tracks stuff a surprising amount of groove into faster, hurried packages, which undercuts any rushed feeling that might otherwise take away from the material, and the five-minute “Seed” – the first of several Salvador high points; which is saying something considering the bar set here – brings the pace more to ground. Bartz underscores the verses with seamless tom runs while Martin’s vocals set up the chorus, and it seems almost like the song is split in two, as around the three-minute mark, Fristoe moves up a few frets and shows some excellent finger-work (Thompson not missing a beat in the process and giving one of the album’s best bass performances holding down the rhythm to complement a guitar solo). At 3:09, Bartz cuts to half-time on the drums, and it’s one of those “shiver up the spine” moments. Not to be missed.
“Bird of Prey” fades in on a quiet interlude – a moment to catch your breath listening. At 6:34, it’s shorter only than the closer, “Solo,” and a good show of diversity from Lo-Pan, who have up till this point showed only their latter two gears. Of course there’s a build, and the song gets more active than its subdued intro, but there’s still a change in vibe to something darker and more contemplative that “Bird of Prey” signifies, and I think what’s best about it is that it’s still essentially a rock song. The band is working within their stated framework and still managing to evoke a different atmosphere. They didn’t have to rely on any sonic tricks or radical changes; they just wrote a song in another mood. Doesn’t sound like much of a shift, but it’s really hard to do. Fristoe takes another ripping solo toward the end, and I like that when he does, he’s not backed by a second rhythm guitar track that wouldn’t be there in a live situation. Salvador is unquestionably a clean-sounding production – Benny Grotto at Mad Oak being Small Stone’s go-to man at this point – but there was clearly an emphasis on maintaining a natural, live feel as well, and that comes across just about anywhere you want to hear it.
Thompson’s bass on “Deciduous” is monstrous. The song might have Salvador’s biggest payoff chorus, and the interplay between Thompson and Bartz is central to why. The song is shorter, and leads into “Intro” – the centerpiece – but outstanding in both structure and performance. Martin is neither derivative of other stoner rock vocalists nor making any missteps in his approach throughout Salvador, but especially on “Deciduous,” his talent for melody and pushing his voice puts Lo-Pan over the top. Although I’m not coordinated enough to do either, I find I’m singing along even as I’m air-drumming right into the break of “Intro,” which is essentially just that. Fristoe riffs and solos, Bartz gives his snare the business, and Thompson offers completely necessary rumble, and the instruments can absolutely stand alone for the 1:49 they’re asked to, but the purpose of the track isn’t so much to have a hit single as to set up Salvador’s back half. You know, like the title says: “Intro.” Martin gets a rest.
As they opened strong with “El Dorado,” so too does Lo-Pan kick off the second half of Salvador in top form. “Chichen Itza” is every bit as strong as “Deciduous,” except that it’s Fristoe shining in the chorus with Martin, the two working in tandem to affect one of the album’s best builds. Both “Chichen Itza” and “Deciduous” are about three and a half minutes long, but they show what a well-written verse/chorus structure can accomplish, and though I’m loathe to choose because my opinion on it seems to change every time I hear the record, there’s a good chance they make Salvador’s middle movement its most powerful. These riffs. Seriously. These riffs. It’s been a while since I heard stoner rock that sounded fresh. Don’t get me wrong, I hear a lot of it that’s good, and a lot of it that’s decent but forgettable, but Lo-Pan have an energy to what they do that’s invigorating, like the band is saying, “Hey, look what I just came up with right now” as they’re playing through familiarly-hued Orange amps and using decades-established songwriting techniques. Even “Spartacus,” which finds its appeal in tempo changes and dime stops more than the hook itself, is presented with such force that it’s hard not to be taken in by it.
Those start-stops aside, “Spartacus” doesn’t have much different working for it than some of the other Salvador material, which makes the lonely fuzz guitar in the opening seconds of “Struck Match” (is that a touch of Tool’s “Pushit” I hear?) and the return to a slower pace that follows like some kind of spring-loaded pie out of a Looney Tunes cartoon that you probably should have seen coming but didn’t anyway. For what it’s worth, “Spartacus” doesn’t sound like filler, it’s just not any kind of departure or necessarily offering much Lo-Pan hasn’t already shown on other pieces. “Struck Match,” on the other hand, takes the underlying melancholy that showed up on “Bird of Prey” and makes it the focus of the entire song. Martin features during the second verse while Fristoe drops to quiet notes and ambient noises, and is every bit up to the task. The last 1:15 reinforces the mood while also adding to the energy, and it seems that even here, Lo-Pan can’t help but make a quality show of their songcraft, though “Struck Match” serves more purpose than just to show diversity or act as a comedown, since it leads so well into the more energetic “Generations,” which could just as easily have opened Salvador as been the second to last track on it.
That frantic immediacy of “El Dorado” and “Bleeding Out” does show up again on “Generations,” maybe even more so, but placed where it is in the tracklisting, the song is absolutely a highlight (there’s that word again), with another landmark chorus and vibrancy running through it. Like a lot of what Salvador presents, it’s just what the moment calls for – a boost in adrenaline right when you were maybe brought down a notch in terms of energy (not quality) – and it sets up seven-minute closer “Solo” as though you had just put the record on. There’s no sense of fatigue. “Solo,” which rocks at a mid-pace until nearly two minutes in when it fades to an extended break during which Thompson keeps the rhythm while Bartz hits cymbal washes and Fristoe dives deep into the mix with some noise, is suitable to finish Salvador, and not just for the hugeness of the sound once Martin’s vocals lead everyone back into the song at 3:55. Fristoe’s more languid riffing and the general tidal pull of the rhythm lend a concluding aspect, and it’s hard to imagine anything coming past the hits and ring-outs that fade the track down except the silence that follows. Once again, just right for the moment.
Indeed, the same could be said about Salvador as a whole. In 2011, nearly 20 years removed from the beginnings of what’s commonly thought of as “modern stoner rock” (circa 1992-1994), a band like Lo-Pan comes along and not only shows that there’s life left in the form, but that it’s worth investigating what can be done with it after all this time. These songs are immaculate. If you’ve ever enjoyed riff rock, or whatever variation terminology on the style you want to use, and you miss out on Salvador, you’ve really lost. I don’t know what higher praise I can give it than I already have, but if you’re still reading, you should know that as of now, this is my album to beat for this year and maybe beyond. The proverbial bar has been raised, and if they can keep up this level of performance and songwriting across their next few offerings, Lo-Pan could easily stand as one of the most important bands of their generation in the genre. Yes, they’re that good, and yes, you really, really need to hear this album.Columbus, Lo-Pan, Ohio, Small Stone