I have a problem Samothrace’s second album, Reverence to Stone, and that is as follows: I can’t seem to make it loud enough. That’s not a complaint with the recording itself, which is plenty loud, but I’ve tried speakers, headphones, in the car, whatever, and nothing seems to be worthy volume-wise. The human ear drum can only take so much, and Samothrace seem to be calling for more. Their first outing since 2008’s Life’s Trade announced their arrival in the newer school of ultra-distorted plod and also released via 20 Buck Spin, the album is comprised of two tracks – “When We Emerged” and “A Horse of Our Own” – that clock in at just under 35 minutes. Like its predecessor, it is a work of exceptional quality, but the key difference between the two is the marked increase in creative scope. Life’s Trade was doom, and Reverence to Stone is as well, but the definition thereof that Samothrace are working with on these tracks is far less rigid and far more individualized. The cave echo on Joe Axler’s drums will be familiar to many who’ve encountered their newer school brethren and sistren in the genre, and a lurching feeling of remorse in their weighted tonality should come as little surprise. It’s the manner in which these elements are put to use and the progression of the songs that gives Reverence to Stone its distinguished feel. The guitar work of Renata Castagna and Brian Spinks (the latter also handles vocals) adds melody to the pummel and the strength of the rhythm section of Axler and bassist Dylan Desmond lies not only in setting and maintaining a groove, but in highlighting and enriching the dynamics of the songwriting. And make no mistake, both “When We Emerged” (an earlier incarnation of which appeared on their initial 2007 demo) and “A Horse of Our Own” are songs. Each has its stretches of indulgence – at 14:20 and 20:29, respectively, that would just about have to be part of the point – but there are memorable landmarks along the way, whether it’s the guitar lead and bass interplay that forms a triumphant swirl on “When We Emerged” or the post-metallic gallop of “A Horse of Our Own.”
And though one doesn’t generally think of records with songs as long as these as possibly being short, a 35-minute runtime is not only manageable, but it allows the listener to be overwhelmed by the tones, by Samothrace’s droning riffs, by Spinks’ growls and screams, by the amelodic rumble and the melodic soloing it meets along the way, but still come out of the experience without suffering from overexposure. Life’s Trade was 47 minutes, and Reverence to Stone shaves a full 12 off that. For Samothrace, that might only be one song, but it might be a song that pulls away somehow from the accomplishments of these two. After four years between releases and their share of tumult – Castagna was out and back in the lineup between the prior album and this one and at some point the band relocated from Kansas to their current residence in Seattle — it’s commendable that Samothrace didn’t decide to top a full hour this time out, instead showing a restraint that better serves the impact their material has on the listener. In the case of “When We Emerged,” that impact is visceral. The song opens with a few ambient guitar lines, but foreboding volume swells give a sense of the crush to come, and as fitting as the title is for the collective’s reemergence, so too is the track well placed before “A Horse of Our Own.” Interplay between Castagna and Spinks is an immediate distinguishing factor, and around four minutes in when the latter unleashes the first of many roars to come, the effect is blistering. Echoing screams ensue over sparse riffing that nonetheless feels claustrophobic for its heft, and it’s not until shortly before six minutes in that Axler announces a change with a snare hit that the pace picks up and Samothrace offer any measure of counterpoint to their onslaught of über-doom misery. The aforementioned leads are like the light that hits the bottom of the ocean, and Desmond’s answer to them is fodder for low end fetishizing that emerges from the mix and sets up the crunching groove that takes hold at 7:24. What the differences are between this “When We Emerged” and the one from their demo might be, I don’t know, but it’s hard to see the song doing anything other than living up to its title.
The guitar leads and bass response work their way back in as a semi-chorus repeated part with Spinks screaming over and it’s an engrossing apex soon met by a gradual comedown skillfully executed as the pace once again slows and Samothrace change the course of the song back to what it initially was. There’s no sudden snare hit that makes it happen, but the shift is palpable all the same, and the drawn-out screams, the feedback, war-drum toms and cymbal crashes make up the remaining four minutes, culminating at last in a wash of cymbals and distorted, abrasive noise that, even as they fade out at the end, pan from channel to channel in a manner that is utterly disturbing. That fade slams promptly into the opening of “A Horse of Our Own,” which feels immediately like the evil older brother of some of Across Tundras’ neo-Americana. It is the newer of the two inclusions (obviously), and if “A Horse of Our Own” is to serve as some indicator of Samothrace’s breadth from here on out, then 2012 finds them no less filled with potential than did 2008. Vocals come in quicker following introductory guitar leads atop an established lumber, and a verse plays out with glacial progress before the lead guitar takes hold again, holding notes that cut sharply through the aura murk of the riff. At 3:37, the guitar feedback fades and a softer line is introduced – for a time by itself over residual amplifier hum, then totally alone, then joined by flourishes of other guitar, far-back drum hits, and so on – that sets up the build in the next phase of “A Horse of Our Own.” Tradeoffs between heavier and ambient parts are nothing new in the sphere of doom or post-metal, but Samothrace executes the course with patience, sounding natural in their shifts without forcing one part into the next. Axler’s drums sound particularly massive contrasting the quieter guitar lines – though in perfect balance with them, mix-wise – and the progression is subtle even as the kick bass sneaks its way in among the rising fray. As the 7:20 mark passes, Spinks layers screams on top of each other, the guitars reemerge and eventually, the song answers the lead section of “When We Emerged” with a triumph of its own, a classic, melodic solo taking hold and bringing “A Horse of Our Own” to its dramatic peak.
It’s short-lived. Just past 10 minutes in, the faster riffing cuts short and feedback and an underlying line from Desmond give way back to the ambient guitar in a reimagining of the introduction. The mood throughout Reverence to Stone has been dark the whole time, but as Spinks and Castagna once more lay the foundation of an effective build, it’s clear by contrast just how dark. There’s some Earth influence at work, but a running line of distorted bass that fades in and, finally, out, sets a bleaker context. They do get “heavy” again, with Axler marking the change at 13:22, but unfortunately don’t return to the faster part for another go. Perhaps that would’ve been too redundant after “When We Emerged,” or maybe the noise they make as Spinks’ vocals return over feedback and well-timed crashes just sounded better. Khanate is always my touchstone for this kind of tortured, agonized brutality, but Samothrace is unquestionably thicker and less sparse – more like Buried at Sea in both approach and realization. Inevitably, saying something like that feels like hyperbole (and if you’ve ever heard Buried at Sea, you know why), but as “A Horse of Our Own” draws itself up and then out on a chariot made from the hollowed out dome of my overturned skull, I can’t help but feel like nothing else quite fits, and if at last someone is up for lifting the sonic gauntlet that band threw down in their short time together, then more to their credit. Time and the reach of Reverence to Stone will tell on that, but the elements are there and Samothrace are clear in their purpose and where others are in service to tone, or to riffs, or to bass groove, or to ambience, they make all of these things and more do precisely they work they want them to do. Both “When We Emerged” and “A Horse of Our Own” are of a scope consistent with their runtime, and the more I hear it the more I believe Reverence to Stone to be one of the year’s most crucial doom releases. Now if only I could find a stereo to match it. Welcome back Samothrace. Recommended.
Tags: 20 Buck Spin, doom metal, drone metal, post-metal, Reverence to Stone, Samothrace, Samothrace Reverence to Stone, Samothrace Seattle, Seattle