What a difference a couple years can make. Well, a couple years and a new singer, to be more precise about it. In the case of Pittsburgh double-guitar five-piece Vulture, they make the most of both. Three years ago, their 2009 self-titled debut EP (review here) charmed with its stoner-doom blend, hinting of better things to come. Listening now to Vulture’s first full-length, Oblivious to Ruin (Innervenus Music Collective), those original songs offer little in terms of preparation for the nastiness present in the new collection. Seven tracks put to tape and mixed by James Curl at Calfax Alley in Ohio over the course of four days in 2011, Oblivious to Ruin is sludge so nasty I had to check and make sure I wasn’t listening to Sourvein by mistake the first time I put it on. Part of that is new vocalist Justin Erb, who bears some sonic resemblance to Sourvein’s T-Roy Medlin, but even in terms of the grit in the guitar behind him, the viciousness of charge in Gene Fikhman and Garrett Twardesky’s playing, Vulture are in an entirely different league here. More assured of their aesthetic and willing to work their way into and out of various levels of abrasion comfortably, they even go so far as to let a song like “Dead Sea” offers a moment of solace before renewing one of the album’s most searing grooves. Erb is a screamer, and a mean one at that, but he doesn’t fail to bring personality to what he does. Along with Medlin, he seems on the title-track to be nodding at the drunken abandon Matt Pike has worked into some of High on Fire’s slower material over the course of their last couple records, and as the faster riff toward the end of “Coming Storm” basks in an early-Crowbar pummel, he follows suit, taking on a Kirk Windstein cadence with what sounds like natural ease.
Of course, what makes Oblivious to Ruin work is that fact that while these influences play out over the course of its 40 minutes, Vulture are putting them to use in service of a sound that’s their own. Indeed, I’d argue that the album’s greatest achievement is how much Vulture come of age on it – which, even three years after their first and now-nebulous-feeling EP, is an impressive feat on a debut full-length – but don’t let that somehow discount the quality of these songs or the fact that the band achieves what they set out here to do. No doubt Vulture had some of the malevolence found on sample-led opener and longest track “This Beautiful Infection” in mind when they got their start as a band, but the difference between then and now is they have the experience and the component viciousness to make it happen. Bassist Justin Bach and drummer Kelly Gabany underscore each filthy, stinking groove Oblivious to Ruin has to offer, and like a lot of sludge, it’s easy to lose sight of complexity because of superficial abrasiveness. Both the titular cut and “Dead Sea” play out marked changes in approach, and not just those already noted from Erb. Gabany’s toms cut through the morass of distortion excellently on the song “Oblivious to Ruin” and each hi-hat hit is excruciating, but the song gradually shifts to a faster groove and a more open-sounding riff that allows for more interplay between Twardesky and Fikhman before fading out and letting the sudden start of “Dead Sea” take hold, in effect reversing the course of tempo from fast to slow. These don’t sound like big changes, I know – slow to fast, fast to slow – but Vulture do it subtly and confidently, so that it almost happens before you’re aware. “Dead Sea” also has a quiet, guitar-led break after the halfway point that speaks to the band’s growing ability to convey an atmosphere… and then smash it to bits shortly thereafter.
And truly, there isn’t much to say about Bach’s bass other than it’s the disturbing completeness behind Oblivious to Ruin’s hopeless mood. He follows the guitars most of the time, but is tonally an entity unto himself, dropping into a deep rumble on centerpiece “Long I Crawl” that makes a simple doom groove irresistible. Vulture works a second sample – a shorter one than that at the beginning of “This Beautiful Infection” – into the start of a quiet break in “Long I Crawl,” making room sonically for Erb to layer lines one on top of the next to bridge the way back to Fikhman and Twardesky’s lurching riff. The lead that arrives late into the song is the album’s best, or at least most effectively placed, and when the song gives way to the Southern metal chug of “Coming Storm” – really Erb’s most Windsteinian moment on the album – Vulture seem to come by their disaffection honestly. Sounding like someone who just lost his job, Erb sustains screams over likewise held riffs, and though they get a little caught up in the progression, they work it out quickly and “Coming Storm,” as the shortest song on the album at 4:42 is no less satisfying than some of the more plodding doom. What sounded like Goatsnake on the EP here just sounds like it wants to punch you in the face, and kudos to the band and to Curl for making that change so evident. Closing duo “Bedridden” and “Apathetic Life” don’t really offer anything Vulture hasn’t already shown, but satisfy nonetheless, the guitars going just out of sync enough on the former to put a stamp on the bastardliness of what they’re playing, and Bach’s bass leading the way into another slow/fast tempo change that adds energy to was seemed to be reveling in its own misery. The finale is basically just two riffs and some transitional parts, but answers every expectation one might put on it with a marked, “fuck you, I’m dooming out,” that one can’t help but find appeal in. They end with guitars fading, and as unpretentiously as they arrived, Vulture split out and leave you with nothing but the warmth of the blood in your mouth. Erb’s presence on Oblivious to Ruin makes a big difference in Vulture’s overall presentation, but maturity is writ large across the work of the Twardesky, Fikhman, Bach and Gabany as well, and the album is all the more biting for it. Recommended.
Tags: Innervenus Music Collective, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Vulture