The thing about listening to Sons of Otis is that, if you’ve ever heard them before, you probably know what’s coming. The Toronto tone merchants have trafficked in densely crushing psychedelia since before the release of their first album, Spacejumbofudge, in 1996, and despite lineup tumult, extended breaks between records, and one retirement from live performances, Sons of Otis have remained largely loyal to their aesthetic over the course of their six full-lengths, the latest of which is the aptly-titled Seismic, on Small Stone. If there’s a more fitting descriptor of guitarist/vocalist Ken Baluke’s fuzz, it would almost certainly have to involve the cosmos – “space-tectonic,” perhaps, but that’s not quite as catchy an album name. In any case, the sound of the 51-minute/seven-track outing makes a fitting inspiration for the title Seismic, and while, again, that’s nothing new for Sons of Otis, they do seem to have coalesced and refined their sound somewhat, even from 2009’s Exiled (review here). Exiled had a lot in common with the sprawling, lurching riffage that songs like “Alone” and “PK” present on Seismic, but there’s a more prevalent blues edge in Sons of Otis circa 2012 that comes across in the first two tracks here, “Far from Fine” and “Lessons,” which both follow a smoked-out course of dirt-covered regret and self-loathing. “Far from Fine” launches with a buildup of amp noise and the exasperated lines “Here I go again/Nothing’s gonna change,” in Baluke’s familiar echoing gurgle, while “Lessons” finds him repeatedly asking, “When will I learn?” over a descending bassline from Frank Sargeant.
That addled sensibility isn’t necessarily new ground for Sons of Otis – one recalls songs like “Losin’ It” from 2001’s Songs for Worship or “Nothing” from 1999’s Templeball – but what the band does better on Seismic is balance that head-down sorrowfulness with hazy jamming and weighted psychedelics. Also the shortest apart from the Mountain cover “Never in My Life” on the album’s second half, “Far from Fine” and “Lessons” are the two shortest and more straightforward songs on Seismic, and they’re well placed at the front. By the time the noise-infused eight minutes of “Alone” kick in – drummer Ryan Aubin thundering the song’s beginning with what I can only assume are toms wide enough to drive a truck through – it marks a change of mood almost in spite of itself, and “Alone” follows suit. It’s slower than “Far from Fine” and more droning on its riff. There’s still a stoned sense of hopelessness to it, as there is to everything Sons of Otis puts out, but where Exiled was murky as regards its purposes, Seismic seems to be more – dare I say it? – clearheaded about what it wants to accomplish. I don’t think it would be fair to paint the picture of Baluke, Sargeant and Aubin as being suddenly mature as artists – Sons of Otis have never seemed particularly unclear about what they want to be sound-wise, but their presentation of the album is nowhere near as mud-soaked as their rumble seems to be. The first two tracks cross that line that Bongzilla did on Amerijuanican between riffy sludge and abrasive blues, and “Alone” follows with noisy psychedelic expansion of those ideas, culminating in a cymbal wash and amp freakout that serves as a firm reminder that it’s more than a little bit about pain.
“Guilt” is a minute shorter than “Alone,” but no less lysergic, creeping along its low-end dominance. To go by titles only, “Far from Fine,” “Lessons,” “Alone,” and “Guilt” might be enough to make one think Seismic follows a messy divorce (from what I hear, they’re all messy, but we say it anyway), but that’s pure conjecture. In any case, the downer spirit is maintained, and with “Guilt,” Sons of Otis force the realization of just how long they’ve been at this and how many have followed since trying to capture a similar tonal feel. Templeball was out by the time Ufomammut released their first record, and Sons of Otis have managed to develop their sound without letting go of their creative impetus. “Guilt,” as the end of the first half of the album, presents a wash of Echoplex swirl toward its finish, but though its guitar and bass tones are always central, it’s Aubin who really delivers the standout performance. Like everything else on Seismic, he sounds huge and in headphones, utterly encompassing, which is rare for drums. But even they seem to be tuned down, and each resultant thud is, well, I think you can guess the word to use.
While all this material sounds jam based in terms of the songwriting process that birthed it, the 9:35 “PK” feels all the more so. It is entirely instrumental and based largely around a singular groove that, were it not also drenched in psychedelic swirling and layers of echo that seem to have lost their source (that is, all you get is echo – it’s not like Baluke’s vocal echo, where there’s a discernible line underneath), I’d think was a jam room track they just decided to keep. It’s a righteous groove, so I wouldn’t fault them if that was actually the case, but the vibe is more developed than something entirely live and off the cuff, though Baluke’s guitar solo before, during and after the midpoint of the song could very well be improvised and I’d be totally willing to believe that, with his off-the-cuff sounding runs and sustained pulls. “PK” defines in large part (it also takes of a large part) of the character of Seismic’s second half. It and closer “Cosmic Jam” – another dead on title from Sons of Otis – sandwich “Never in My Life,” and though the immediate familiarity of the Mountain riff does a lot to ground the listener and doubtless it was placed as it is to do just that, it’s the two instrumentals around that provide the context and the mood, which is spaced, stoned and above all: Heavy. These things have long been specialties of Sons of Otis, but they also do them better than most everyone else on the planet. Formulas that work require no fucking with.
To that end, it’s also worth noting that “Never in My Life” is not Sons of Otis’ first Mountain cover. In addition to tracks by both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Motörhead on Exiled, the band has in the past taken on Saint Vitus, and, on Templeball, they did a stonerized version of Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen.” The redundancy of source material does nothing to detract from the actual enjoyment of “Never in My Life,” Aubin hitting the cowbell and keeping time with his bass drum while Baluke’s fuzz takes the fore and Sargeant locks into the groove without letting go. There’s something exciting about a Sons of Otis cover that makes you subsequently listen to other acts with a curiosity as to what their material might sound like as performed by the trio. Either way, Seismic is rounded out by “Cosmic Jam,” which plots a similar course to “PK” if one not quite so singularly minded. Sargeant once again keeps the bassline running throughout, but Baluke breaks from the central riff after three minutes in to explore some echoing space noises and sporadic lead notes amid tape noise and the gradual build back to the starting point. The mood isn’t quite as dark as “PK” in part because of those leads, but the groove is languid and lazy, and even when Baluke returns to the riff, he does so only to ride it out to the song’s finish, giving Seismic a hypnotic finish rather than one that crushes in the spirit of the first couple tracks.
They may be well within their own element on their newest outing, but the fact is no one else does what Sons of Otis do as well as Sons of Otis do it. Their methods are unrelenting, and that’s no less true on Seismic than it’s ever been – the converted will continue to worship the vibrations and those who can’t take the punishment they’re dealing out simply won’t. Seismic, if nothing else, provides further evidence for the argument of the Canadian three-piece as being criminally underappreciated in the realm of heavy psychedelia, as they’ve long since mastered the form and refined their approach to the point of near-total individuality. Recommended.
Tags: Canada, Doom, Heavy psych, Small Stone, Sons of Otis, Sons of Otis Canada, Sons of Otis stoner, Stoner doom, stoner rock, Toronto