Reformed following a few years’ quiet around a 50 percent new lineup in which guitarist Willy “Will-Kill” Rivera and drummer Steven “Sven” Sullivan are the sole remaining original members, Virginian crushers Lord return for their first full-length outing since 2006/2007’s Built Lord Tough. The new album, called Chief, finds release through the band-affiliated Heavy Hound Records, and sees Lord inject a forward-thinking, vaguely-spiritual bend to their already-formidable sludge. Chief is comprised of eight cuts that play out in 38 minutes, and is bound to surprise both those who never heard Lord’s prior incarnations and those who did with its complexity of arrangements and melodic vocal interplay between newcomers Steven “Kerch” Kerchner (aka Frank Palkoski of Palkoski, also drums for Ancient Astronaught and ex-VOG and Ol’ Scratch vocals) and bassist Helena Goldberg (also of Akris, formerly of New York duo Aquila). The pair play a huge role in defining Lord’s sound as it exists on Chief, and with the bulk of the album recorded by Beaten Back to Pure guitarist Vince Burke at his own Sniper Studios in North Carolina, there’s enough dirt thrown on these tracks to build a mountain.
That actually holds the record back at points – some of the roughness in the production feels like it’s coming at the expense of Rivera’s guitar on the drum-heavy “Goliath” – but nonetheless sets Lord in line with a long tradition of Southern sludge. Chief gets underway with “Medic,” which proves a more than suitable introduction to what Kerchner and Goldberg have to offer vocally, the somewhat Anselmoan of the former meeting with Goldberg’s obviously higher register croon and relying equally if not more on abrasive screams noisily manipulated to endurance-testing effect on the later “Break of Day.” “Medic,” in contrast, doesn’t veer into the progressive or experimental, but listening to it, it sounds like a generational shift in sludge, Rivera adding vocals as well to Kerchner and Goldberg’s layered onslaught and the structure of the song proving more complex than the standard, punk-informed verses/choruses of first-gen outfits like EyeHateGod and, to some extent, Weedeater. The groove, fortunately, remains, and “Medic” puts it to good use, setting up the more ethereal “S&M” (it stands for “Sun and Moon”) as one of Chief’s biggest surprises.
Once introduced in “S&M,” the lines, “Tell me your master plan/So I can understand/What lives inside of me/Sun, moon, energy,” and “How am I ‘sposed to breathe/When I’m not all of me/You ask someone to lead/When you are your own chief” become a thematic refrain to which Lord return later on Chief’s most melodic and brooding tracks, “The Connection” and “Lady of the Harvest Moon,” both of which were recorded separately from the rest of the tracks, and which sound it in Sullivan’s drums and elsewhere. In that way, “S&M” becomes a central part of Chief, and the 11-minute runtime – some five and a half minutes longer than the next closest cut – backs that up. The song rests in its movements, but never loses sight of its base, Kerchner’s noises cutting through the mix in a way that makes them sound as though they were added later, and Rivera managing to squeeze in overlapping solos after the halfway point of the song. The lyric, “Sun and the moon’s got a master plan,” is repeated multiple times toward the end of the chaos, and it’s about as close as Lord get anywhere on the album to being catchy of fodder for any kind of sing-along. The dynamics between sludgy and melodic that one can measure elsewhere on Chief between songs like “Goliath” and the piano-led “Lady of the Harvest Moon” play out in close proximity at the end of “S&M,” the madness of the apex giving way to a more wistful finale, that in turn devolves into static noise.
And as much as elements brought forward on “S&M” show up again, Chief is an album that could still go either way in terms of taking it as a whole or in its individual parts. That is, many of the songs feel like single units rather than simply serving the album at large. To that end, “Goliath,” which follows “S&M,” is among the highlights of the album and sets up some of the timings and patterns that Lord follows on the remaining six cuts. Goldberg pushes her vocals into semi-screams toward the song’s end, and though she’s better suited here to being the melodic center contrasting Kerchner’s larynx abuse, when she exclaims, “I don’t know what happened to me” (the first time), the effect is chilling. The piano and acoustic guitar, arranged backing vocals and sentimental vibe of “The Connection,” pushes Chief in a different direction, but the build of the song, which commences after a more ambient intro, doesn’t last long before giving way to “Break of Day,” which follows closer to the pattern of “Medic,” grooving in and out of varied parts while the vocals mix screams, melodic singing and growls. “Break of Day” gets back to a genuine stomp in its chorus, but there’s so much going on around it that you’re off somewhere else before you realize just how locked in you are. The noise from Kerchner pierces both on “Break of Day” and on “Zoh K Zo Kay,” maybe even more so on the latter, which seems fittingly paired with “Break of Day” for the traditional sludge elements and groove they’re built around. As the section of the track list between the middle and the end, one might expect some dip in quality or something like that, but “Zoh K Zo Kay” particularly is one of Lord’s stronger pieces, providing a rush before “Lady of the Harvest Moon,” which reintroduces the piano from Sullivan and highlights vocal harmonies between Goldberg and Kerchner as Rivera takes a break on guitars.
The “Show me your master plan” refrain doesn’t fit as well into “Lady of the Harvest Moon” as into “S&M” or “The Connection” (“Sun, moon, energy” does) but Lord make it work, and it reveals that as unhinged as parts of Chief are, the band has some overall structure in mind, or else they’d be more haphazard in the placement of their ballads. The differences in audio fidelity between the two non-pummel songs, which were recorded by Brian Carnes at Stickman Studios in Virginia, and the Burke-helmed material (which is the rest), are noticeable, but the aesthetic of those songs changes so much from the rest of what surrounds that that winds up being the most striking shift, rather than the vocals sounding like different mics were used. “Lady of the Harvest Moon” is the shortest track on Chief at 3:18, but accomplishes its goal of changing the tone of the album and showing that Lord have more to offer than male/female vocal tradeoffs over heavy riffs, or perhaps underscoring the point, first made on “The Connection,” and setting up the final statement in “Shiloh/The Wait is Over” to be that much more striking when Sullivan starts in on the snare.
Kerchner’s screams and Goldberg’s harsher approach mesh well on the “Shiloh” portion of the closer, and “The Wait is Over” is basically the title line repeated over a Southern-riffed groove, building and cresting until the song eventually collapses on itself and brings Chief to a close. The record proves not to be without its issues – the vocals sound completely dry if they aren’t on the heavier tracks, and because so much of the guitar and bass tone comes across as lower end, Goldberg’s voice sounds out of balance over the songs in places – but the biggest takeaway from Chief is that the reinvigorated Lord have brought a striking amount of creativity and individuality to the sludgy form. One imagines and hopes that subsequent releases from this lineup (new material is reportedly already in the works) will see them refine their processes and direction even further, building on the considerable accomplishments here. Who’s your chief, indeed.Fredricksburg, Heavy Hound Records, Lord, Virginia