Aligned to a burgeoning Midwestern scene that in their home state of Indiana alone boasts heavy-hitting acts like Devil to Pay, ResinHit Records labelmates The Hedons, The Heavy Co., with whom they share past members, Bulletwolf, Goliathon and others, Lafayette double-guitar fivesome The Mound Builders mark their debut with 2011’s Strangers in a Strange Land. Their awareness of the genre in which they reside is evident in everything from the Kyuss-style riffing of “Hessians of Stone” to the post-Sleep lyrics of “Spacevan,” but perhaps the single most prevalent influence throughout the album’s nine tracks/37 minutes is Alabama Thunderpussy. Strangers in a Strange Land, as much as it basks in stoner rock’s many lyrical and stylistic conventions, has a more Southern bent to it than some of The Mound Builders’ Hoosier contemporaries, and vocalist Jim Voelz – despite the occasional scream – keeps a burly inflection in his approach bound to be recognizable to anyone experienced with ATP’s Johnny Throckmorton-fronted era. In part because of that band’s cohesiveness and scope, nothing The Mound Builders does feels especially out of place, but Strangers in a Strange Land ultimately suffers from a common affliction in its mix that holds back the listening experience.
I say it all the time. When it comes to mixing heavy rock records: Vocals down, bass up. Bassist Robert Ryan Strawsma is already competing for prevalence with the considerable lead guitar of Brian Boszor and “Ninja” Nate Malher’s rhythm playing, but where his tone should hold down the groove on the chugging later cut “White Horse,” the tone is too clean and too thin to really do so. Likewise, Voelz’s vocals are so forward as to dominate the songs where the instruments should, and like a lot of albums – especially a lot of first albums — Strangers in a Strange Land takes a metal mix and imposes it on heavy rock, whereas one of the key differences between the two is how they’re best presented mix-wise. The Mound Builders’ punk influence is done a disservice, but the tradeoff is the album is bound to find some more sympathy from a headbanger contingent, as the Orange Goblin-style gruffness of centerpiece “Ironhide” is given further sharpness, but I still can’t help but feel that the dueling lead lines that persist would be better met if they were also bolstered on the low end more thank they are. Couple that with a thin snare sound for drummer Jason “Dinger” Brookhart (not to be confused with former Black Pyramid guitarist Andy “Dinger” Beresky), and it becomes even clearer that the production of Strangers in a Strange Land doesn’t serve the songs as well as it could. Granted, if they recorded it in a tin can, I don’t think it would stop “Winding River” from kicking ass, but there’s a lot of The Mound Builders’ first record that doesn’t leave the impression it should, and it being a debut, it’s even more pivotal that the band learn what works and why for their next time out.
Because as much as Strangers in a Strange Land is held back by its production, it’s just that. If the band sucked outright or sounded like they could have nothing worthwhile to offer going forward, it wouldn’t matter. They’d be easy to write off and move on. But The Mound Builders have a clear chemistry between the players – Malher and Boszor on guitar particularly – and as much as they’re conscious of where they’re coming from in terms of genre, the more familiar side of what they do is offset by a genuine prowess of songwriting that comes out despite any sonic issues. You can hear it in the punch of opener “Wake of the Red Witch” and the increased breadth of the finale, “Narcomancer.” There’s a lot about Strangers in a Strange Land that works, it’s just that what doesn’t winds up being primary in the album’s presentation. Still, The Mound Builders show potential on these songs, and as that’s an essential function of any debut, it’s hard to consider the record anything but a success on that level. As it was put to tape over the course of nearly a full year’s time, I might recommend next time a less piecemeal approach should such a thing be feasible. Not saying everyone needs to record live to two-inch tape or anything like that, but in terms of keeping consistent balances from song to song and – as with Brookhart’s snare – just a steady sound throughout the tracks, there’s something to be said for putting an album together with some pace. It doesn’t always work out for the best, but given what The Mound Builders are doing musically, I think it might for them. In the meantime, there are more than a few endearing stretches on Strangers in a Strange Land, and while I don’t imagine I’ll revisit the album on the regular, it has definitely piqued my interest to see what the band does from here on out.
Tags: Indiana, Lafayette, ResinHit Records, The Mound Builders