Highly-stringed Salt Lake City five-piece SubRosa released their Strega full-length debut in 2008 on I Hate Records. Making the jump to Profound Lore for the 2011 follow-up, the band, which includes two violinists, guitar, bass and drums, now unveils No Help for the Mighty Ones, a varied 59 minutes of melancholic doom that, despite its inherent drama and “extra” instrumentation (I put “extra” in quotes there because the violins don’t actually feel extraneous or tacked onto the surrounding music), remains definitively American. No Help for the Mighty Ones was recorded by Andy Patterson (Iota, etc.), and though the structures are mostly open, SubRosa culls together a couple genuinely memorable moments throughout the eight tracks, the vocals of guitarist Rebecca Vernon having a haunting quality, backed by both violinists Kim Pack and Sarah Pendleton, and prove capable of more than the kind of post-metal sub-melodic monotony so many experimental outfits seem willing to settle for.
Drummer Zach Hatsis starts off album opener “Borrowed Time, Borrowed Eyes” with a war stomp and is soon joined by Vernon’s guitar. The song, which according to the liner notes is based lyrically on Cormac McCarthy’s novel 2006 The Road, is among the shorter of No Help for the Mighty Ones’ tracks at 5:51 (only “Whippoorwill” and “House Carpenter” are shorter), but still serves as a decent introduction to the wide breadth of the album. Aside from its “Hey, we read books” appeal, the rich tonality and textured feel of its ending movement is the first show of SubRosa’s melodic prowess. As the track leads directly into the brown-note bass intro of “Beneath the Crown,” handled by Dave Jones, it’s readily apparent SubRosa are casting a wide sonic net. It’s not so much a gradual build as a lull into soon-smashed security, but the band pulls it off well anyhow, Hatsis driving the move into faster revelations about three minutes in capped by frantic violin work and combined clean singing and screams. Magnus “Devo” Andersson, who also mixed Strega, does an excellent job balancing clarity among the instrumentation (not easy with some of the effects that come up) and the creation of an overall aural wash. The linear path “Beneath the Crown” follows is well worth following.
Structure, which has been alluded to already, is more of an issue when it comes to the track order itself than it is within the individual songs. No Help for the Mighty Ones peaks early with its most memorable and hardest-hitting cut, the 11:44 “Stonecarver,” which immediately follows “Beneath the Crown.” The five-piece do a good job using noise to bridge the gaps between songs, but Subrosa’s most effective build just arrives too soon, the track starting off with eerie half-whispered foreign-language spoken word over ringing out guitar and gradually moving from a darkened folk feel to a driving rhythm (if every album has to have its “Stones From the Sky” moment, this is it for SubRosa), the delivery of the title line, and an apex that’s no less exciting for how outwardly engaging it is. I’m not saying it needed to be the last track on No Help for the Mighty Ones, but even “The Inheritance,” which is probably better at least as far as the vocal melody and guitar line goes, is a comedown in terms of energy, and I find in listening I’m more inclined to long for what just passed than focus on what’s still coming.
That’s a problem, but ultimately it’s SubRosa’s diversity of sound that saves the record. “The Inheritance” has a lush feel that “Stonecarver” didn’t, and nine-minute “Attack on Golden Mountain” finds the vocals following the riff (not something SubRosa does often) to excellent affect. Pack and Pendleton do a lot to distinguish themselves and the band as a whole, and while it would be easy to label it a gimmick, the material doesn’t bear that out. No Help for the Mighty Ones is perhaps strongest in terms of its atmosphere and mood, and the violins are essential to the creation of both. Even as Vernon is backed by guttural growling toward the end of “Attack on Golden Mountain,” it’s more the instrumentation cutting through that has me hooked to the song. That’s less the case for “Whippoorwill,” where they come in later, but a more grounded riff and vocal melody turns the track into a highlight nonetheless, even if it’s one immediately overshadowed by SubRosa’s harmonized a cappella interpretation of the Celtic folk song, “House Carpenter,” a classic Christian morality tale put to beautiful use. “Stonecarver” probably would have been able to stand up to it, if only for the additional armament its encompassing length would provide, but “Whippoorwill” is almost completely forgotten by the time “House Carpenter” lets you exhale again.
In this age of easily-renumbered files, it’s an easy fix if you want to make it, or if you agree it’s justified (I have the CD and so haven’t done it apart from skipping back and forth to hear how it might sound), but more important is the lasting affect of No Help for the Mighty Ones as a whole. “Dark Country” closes out with a reinforcement of the varying aspects of SubRosa’s sound – thick guitar and bass tones, excellent drumming, violins in more than an accompanying role and rich vocals – and when the finale is over, it’s a record that seems to require multiple listens to really sink in. Perhaps true to the band’s literate nature, they don’t bend to accessibility, but rather, challenge the listener to understand the moves they’re making and come up with a viable interpretation of them. No Help for the Mighty Ones, apart from a few passages, doesn’t offer much help along the journey, but it does prove to be a trip worthy of undertaking. Jones’ bass, so effective in opening “Beneath the Crown,” ends “Dark Country,” and the rumble therein is no less triumphant. Approach with an open mind, and be ready to take it on more than once, and you should be fine.
Tags: Profound Lore, Salt Lake City, SubRosa, Utah