There are hints of rock-era Entombed to be heard on “Malverde,” the first track on Red Fang’s Relapse Records debut, Murder the Mountains. The four-piece, who hail from the exalted grounds of Portland, Oregon, meld heavier-end stoner guitar-focus with Melvins crunch on that track and elsewhere on the album, the dueling vocals of guitarist Bryan Giles (mostly growling) and bassist Aaron Beam (mostly clean) providing variety over material that ranges musically from newer-school heavy progressive melodicism to all-out riff-metal abandon. Red Fang’s last album, a 2009 self-titled released on Sargent House, earned much acclaim for its heavy sounds and the comical video the band made for the track “Prehistoric Dog,” and with high-profile touring in the works alongside names like Saint Vitus and Megadeth for 2011, Red Fang is a safe bet for a band who’s going to come out of this year much bigger than they went into it. Fortunately for those who, like myself, are sticklers for this kind of thing, the Chris Funk-produced and Vance Powell-mixed Murder the Mountains has the chops to earn the band every bit of the acclaim/hype they get.
Aside from virtually guaranteeing Red Fang cred in the hipster circuit, what attaching names like Funk (who produced The Decemberists) and the mightily-bearded Powell (who won a Grammy for engineering The Raconteurs’ album) to Murder the Mountains does is give the band more of a reach than they’d have if they worked with someone strictly limited to the heavier end of the spectrum. The difference between a lot of heavy rock and indie is mostly in the thickness of the guitars and bass and the presence of the drums in the mix. John Sherman’s drums show up here sounding natural and more than accounted for mix-wise, both Giles’ and fellow guitarist David Sullivan are given suitable heft tonally, and Beam’s bass tone on songs like “Number Thirteen” and the immediately accessible “Wires” makes for some of Murder the Mountains’ best listening. Little flourishes like the feedback off the snare on “Malverde” are interesting turns, and Red Fang are by no means suffering from not being “heavy enough,” whatever standard might be used to measure that.
The aforementioned “Wires” is one of several very catchy cuts – the crunchier “Into the Eye” and closer “Human Herd” also come to mind – that show ample growth in Red Fang’s songwriting since the self-titled (which wasn’t short of memorable tracks either), and there are a couple moments like that toward the end of “Throw Up” or the non-chorus of the opener where everything seems to take a back seat to “hey, check out this fucking awesome riff we came up with,” which is a nice touch to “Throw Up” especially, fading in, the whole band coming back, etc. Sherman’s drums are plodding but still active, finding a brief solo to open the shorter “Painted Parade.” Red Fang work in a number of modes on Murder the Mountains – perhaps speaking to multiple contributors in the writing or at very least a general open-mindedness – and the straightforward crush that comes forward on “Painted Parade” is most welcome, Beam’s vocals seeming to bridge a gap there where one might expect Giles to take the lead spot.
That awareness and vocal tradeoff – I won’t credit it to Funk as producer since it seemed to be there on Red Fang‘s last album as well – is a big part of what makes Murder the Mountains such an exciting listen. Layers of clean singing on “Hank is Dead” — which follows “Wires” as the third track – provide depth of arrangement that a lot of up and coming acts ignore in favor of an “everything louder than your face” ethic, which, while not without its appeal, doesn’t last nearly as long past the novelty stage. When Giles comes back for “Dirt Wizard,” the tradeoff pattern is established, but Red Fang haven’t just constructed the album along lines of back-and-forth. It’s Giles, Beam, Beam, Giles, then (ostensibly) both on “Throw Up,” and the affect, rather than predictability, is a sense of not knowing or really caring where Murder the Mountains goes next. There’s enough groove and flow that Red Fang put you more or less where they want you at any given moment.
“Throw Up” does feel like the centerpiece it is (track five of 10; as close as they get without an equal number of songs on each side), and “Painted Parade”’s adrenaline-boost leads straight into the riffier, chugging “Number Thirteen.” Beam and Giles have a tradeoff going in the chorus that’s particularly effective, while the guitars in the verses have a bit of that neo-prog noodle to them without being over the top or overly wanking. As a pair, “Number Thirteen” and “Into the Eye” are one of the strongest on Murder the Mountains, the former benefitting from an incredibly forceful ending and the latter echoing some of the Melvins/Entombed thud of “Malverde.” More interplay among the vocals is bolstered by Sherman’s ready cymbals and Beam’s bass, which seems to use the guitar lines more as a launch-point than a trail to follow. Catchiness is attained via lyrical repetition and nod-worthy progressions, and though it’s not one of Red Fang’s more structurally exciting tracks, it does a lot with what it has.
If the point hasn’t yet been strongly enough made about Beam’s bass, let the sub-psychedelia of the plodding “Undertow” do the rest of the job. Beam starts the track – a complete shift in mood – with a languid, doom-style pacing and as Giles and Sullivan relegate themselves to noises in the initial verses and breaks, later taking leads and riffing, it’s the bass that drives the point home. “Undertow” is nearly perfectly placed where it is in terms of the tracklisting, as another heavy riffer or straightforward rocker would sound redundant, but the payoff to the build that comes with about 1:30 left is just enough of a change to show Red Fang had another trick in them all along. They were saving it, and rightly so. Guitar lines and noises close the song and lead right to the finale, “Human Herd.”
They do not linger. Instead, they throw in one last crowd pleaser (which, again, wouldn’t have worked had it directly followed “Into the Eye”) and end cold to make Murder the Mountains feel like a quick 42 minutes. With a kind of classic rock lyricism it shares with “Wires,” “Human Herd” shows Red Fang’s tremendous propensity for writing within a structure. It’s these songs that are going to serve them well as their rigorous road schedule plays out. Murder the Mountains is fun without being a joke and heavy without that being its only asset, and with the work they’re undertaking to support it, you can bet Red Fang believe in what they’re doing. If you’re not afraid of a little accessibility or the potential of having these songs stuck in your head for an indeterminate amount of time, they might just make a believer out of you too.Oregon, Portland, Red Fang, Relapse