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Greenleaf, Nest of Vipers: A Taste of Poison

Like a lot of bands, the story of Greenleaf’s now decade-plus tenure (their self-titled debut EP came out on Molten Universe in 2000) is one of a rotating lineup, but more than that, it’s the story of a rotating lineup of players who’ve helped define their country’s heavy rock scene for that decade and longer. The remaining founding members of the band, Tommi Holappa (guitar) and Bengt Bäcke (bass), trace their roots back to Dozer, in which Holappa played guitar and whose first two albums Bäcke produced as part of a discography that also includes Demon Cleaner’s transformative 2000 long-player, The Freeflight. Bäcke engineered the first several Greenleaf albums as well: 2001’s Revolution Rock, 2003’s Secret Alphabets and 2007’s Agents of Ahriman – but on their newest offering, Nest of Vipers (Small Stone), Bäcke takes a back seat in that regard, and Karl Daniel Lidén, who played drums on everything up to Agents of Ahriman and whose VAKA project released its Kappa Delta Phi debut in 2008, has taken over engineering duties for the instruments and the mixing, leaving the vocals to be self-recorded by vocalist Oskar Cedermalm. Cedermalm, who also appeared on Agents of Ahriman, is full-time bassist/vocalist in Truckfighters, and laid his parts to tape at that band’s Studio Bombshelter, which anyone who’s yet seen the recent Truckfighters documentary (review here) is bound to recognize the name of.

Meanwhile, Dozer bassist Johan Rockner has signed on to this latest incarnation of Greenleaf, playing second guitar alongside Holappa, and Olle Mårthans, who drummed on Dozer’s 2008 apparent-swansong – I keep hoping they’re not really done – Beyond Colossal, has taken that position as well. It’s a complex (super-) grouping that ultimately results in the following Nest of Vipers lineup:

Oskar Cedermalm: vocals/vocal recording (Truckfighters)
Tommi Holappa: guitar (Dozer)
Johan Rockner: guitar (Dozer)
Bengt Bäcke: bass (engineer for Dozer, Demon Cleaner, etc.)
Olle Mårthans: drums (Dozer)

And though he doesn’t actually play anything this time around, Lidén makes his presence felt in the sound of the album, which in terms of the mix and the open-air feeling of the instruments has a lot in common with Dozer’s Beyond Colossal and – especially in Mårthans’ drums – Lidén’s own VAKA project. The inherent heaviness of those sounds is a big shift in itself from how Greenleaf presented their material on Agents of Ahriman – which I’m more than happy to go on record as saying was one of my favorite albums of the last decade – but ultimately serves the songs well, as they benefit from Mårthans’ bombast and the overall grittier feel. Factor in guest appearances from Dozer guitarist/vocalist Fredrik Nordin and noted organist Per Wiberg (ex-Opeth/Spiritual Beggars) on the extended closing title-track – Wiberg also shows up on third cut, “Lilith” – and former Lowrider singer Peder Bergstrand (currently of I are Droid) on the later “Sunken Ships,” and the personnel becomes even more noteworthy for Nest of Vipers. Nonetheless, the album keeps continuity five years later with Agents of Ahriman (on which Bergstrand also guested) in its classic rock modernization, ultra-Swedish vibing and masterful songcraft, offering nine engaging tracks that vary in mood and groove and remain nonetheless impeccably structured. Unspeakably catchy when they want to be, but able to turn mood on a dime and maintain the flow, the only shame about Greenleaf in 2012 is that it took so long for Nest of Vipers to manifest.

They have a good excuse in that regard, given the work Dozer, Truckfighters and VAKA have done since 2007, and Nest of Vipers is quick to shake off any rust that might have accrued since the last outing. Opener “Jack Staff” is the first of three four-minute stunners, and followed by “Case of Fidelity” and the first of Wiberg’s appearances on “Lilith,” Greenleaf builds an immediate momentum of straightforward and hooky rock. Cedermalm turns in a banner performance vocally, showing a depth of arrangement and layering that speaks to his thinking of the band as more than just a side-project, and as he tops Holappa and Rockner’s riffing with harmonized verses and choruses, Nest of Vipers establishes its melodic core. Underneath (or perhaps cutting through), Mårthans enacts the same kind of ferocity he brought to his snare work on Beyond Colossal, which Lidén, a drummer himself, excellently captures. His fills and tom runs on both “Jack Staff” and “Case of Fidelity” are a huge factor in the excitement the songs build, and Bäcke’s bass adds a rich and warm thickness to the more open verses of the latter while also standing up to the guitars for the bridge. With the addition of Wiberg’s Hammond to “Lilith,” the song earns its place as third in the line, feeling like the grander culmination of Nest of Vipers’ first three tracks before the longer “Tree of Life” slows the album’s progression down and changes to a more psychedelic atmosphere. Mårthans again excels on “Lilith,” and his drums are prominent in the mix but not overbearing, and it feels like the guitars have rightly taken a step back to account for Wiberg, but the solo in the song’s back half shines through all the same before a final verse and chorus thunder it to its finish.

Breaking Nest of Vipers into thirds isn’t a bad way to go about it. The first three songs mark an “over before you know it” kind of spearhead, and the next slow down and develop a diverse sense of structure and approach, and the final trio offer further development and, finally, summation of the whole experience. Certainly a shift is underway as the first three minutes of “Tree of Life,” which is only five, start a slow build more or less from scratch. Cedermalm’s vocals arrive for the lone verse at 3:17, and although Mårthans keeps a near-frantic beat on his ride cymbal for most of the time, switching to the crash and hi-hat as one of Nest of Vipers’ many righteously-fuzzed leads takes hold, Greenleaf are never entirely unrestrained. Where a lot of bands would jam out parts like these, and where that may well have been the foundation on which the song was built, the point is it was built, and control over it is maintained. The track feels long at five minutes, but that proves mostly a function of the more atmospheric take, as the centerpiece “Dreamcatcher” takes hold for the shortest single duration of Nest of Vipers (3:53) and nonetheless continues the same mood, or at very least adds a little funk to it with start-stop riffing and Bonham-style heavy tom landings that underscore the beat as much as they propel it. Holappa and Rockner stand out on guitar in the chorus, and another fuzz lead ties “Dreamcatcher” to “Tree of Life,” even though it picks up its pace for a more hurried ending, Cedermalm retreating deeper into the mix so as not to compete with a raucous instrumental finale as much as become part of it. As ever, Lidén shows his contributions behind the scenes can be as formidable as any out front.

“At the Helm” brings back a riffier feel from the earlier tracks, but tempers it with a laid-back verse that trades off into a heavier chorus with gloriously predictable pauses, as though Holappa, Bäcke, Rockner and Mårthans were taking a breath (one of the guitars keeps playing, so I guess it’s not everyone) before unleashing it. Cedermalm counters with some of Nest of Vipers’ most accomplished vocal melodies, the cycle repeats, and a bluesy solo bridge leads to just a flash of doom before the final chorus kicks in. Now two-thirds of the way in, Greenleaf haven’t yet shown all of their stylistic breadth, but at least most of what they have to offer is on display within the first six tracks, which makes “Sunken Ships” perfectly positioned as the seventh for bringing in Bergstrand’s guest spot on vocals. Having also contributed to “Black Tar” on Agents of Ahriman, Bergstrand adds here a casually crooned verse and switches to a sweet, Homme-ian falsetto for the chorus that’s no less ably delivered. Mårthans seems momentarily restrained on the hi-hat for the verse, but adds punctuating snare stomps to the chorus, picking up from “At the Helm”’s finish and still managing to add flourish to a well-earned Bäcke bass solo. Unlike some of the material in the previous third (the middle third), “Sunken Ships” seems less geared on affecting a musical build than exploring a richness of melody, and as Bäcke returns to the fore to start “The Timeline’s History,” it’s clear what the song has been building toward. The momentum of “Jack Staff” and “Case of Fidelity” (I’d include “Lilith” here as well, but its organ spot is yet to find companion on the closer) is revived, and Greenleaf confirm that at the core of Nest of Vipers is a current of excellent songwriting.

To that I’ll also add that although one might look at the tracklisting – on which six of the nine tracks hover within 10 seconds of being four minutes long – and think that some kind of redundant formula is at play, that’s simply not the case. Even as “Jack Staff,” “Case of Fidelity” and “The Timeline’s History” follow a similar course, they each have a personality within that course and seem to be driving for a different feel. Aiding that argument is the surf rock solo break in the back-half of latter, which Bäcke and Mårthans handle beautifully and cut with a snare to launch back into the final chorus. Cedermalm’s vocal confidence makes me look forward to the next Truckfighters more than I already was, and soon enough, “Nest of Vipers (A Multitude of Sins)” begins its unfolding, Wiberg’s organ complementing the guitars as Dozer’s Nordin takes the fore vocally with a falsetto of his own. At 8:12, the title-track is the longest on Nest of Vipers by more than two full minutes, but it also accounts for almost every turn Greenleaf make on the eight songs preceding, and allows room for a killer organ-into-guitar solo in the middle from which the band embarks on the album’s instrumental ending – a subtle but undeniable build for which Mårthans saves his finest and most bombastic drumming. Fills seem to go in two directions at once amid the driving guitars, bass and organ, but ultimately, it’s the latter that has the distinction of capping Nest of Vipers as the other instruments cut away and the organ notes sustain like the waving flag of Greenleaf’s classic rock allegiance.

Given Wiberg’s characteristically excellent contributions and Nordin stepping into the vocal role, one might think of “Nest of Vipers (A Multitude of Sins)” as a sequel to “Bound for Greatness” from Dozer’s Beyond Colossal, but the instrumental build at the end sets the two songs apart more even than (somewhat) different players’ involvement could. Still, some of the same ideas are there in the beginning, and it’s one more subtle example of Greenleaf’s overarching refinement. Holappa and Bäcke have developed this band from a side-project curiosity into a bullet-pointed summary of modern Swedish heavy rock’s course since these players began helping set it in the late ‘90s. Like the best of its genre from any nation, Nest of Vipers is unabashedly classic in its influence but still pushing into new territory, and the heft added by Lidén’s production only makes these songs more dangerous. It’s been a long time coming, and I feel like a bit of a fanboy glowing over it so much, but Greenleaf’s fourth full-length has met every expectation I could have put on it, and like its predecessor, it’s a record I look forward to engaging with on a longer term than a simple review can encompass. No doubt in my mind it will stand as one of 2012’s finest releases, and for anyone who ever wanted to garner some understanding of what Swedish heavy rock should and can and does accomplish when so well executed, Nest of Vipers is a textbook whose lessons are waiting to be read. Highly recommended and then some.

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2 Responses to “Greenleaf, Nest of Vipers: A Taste of Poison”

  1. stickman says:

    Nice review, can’t wait to hear this. I need to check out VAKA sometime too.

  2. Fastnbulbous says:

    Pretty early review for an album coming out June 12! Or has it been moved up?

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