Swedish five-piece Skånska Mord follow-up their Small Stone debut with Paths to Charon, a second full-length that affirms the band’s blend of ‘70s and ‘90s heavy rocks. As with its predecessor, 2010’s The Last Supper (review here), there’s very little about Paths to Charon that’s striving to be modern, and yet the production is clean, crisp and not at all geared toward a retro mentality. The Örkelljunga band – comprised of former members of Sverige clans Half Man and Mothercake – let the classic structures, soulful vocals, occasional flourishes of organ (provided by recording engineer Martin Ekelund) and riff-led songwriting do that work for them. Guitarists Patrik Berglin and Petter Englund are at the fore for most of the album, but in the tradition of their countrymen in Abramis Brama, vocalist Janne Bengtsson provides a standout performance in the tradition of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, backed by Englund on the album highlight/longest cut “Lord of Space and Time” and by guest vocalist Ann-Sofie Hoyles on the earlier “Addicts,” the second song on Paths to Charon following the opener “Dark Caves of Your Mind,” an immersive, rocking start that sets a tone with its catchy chorus and classic-style verse riff. Amid a final build of swirling wah guitar and rhythmic push from bassist Patric Carlsson and drummer Thomas Jönsson, Bengtsson throws his harmonica into the mix to play up a bluesier vibe and it works well as a catalyst for the duet in “Addicts” to follow, on which the fuzzier guitar rests below Bengtsson and Hoyles’ shared verses while Carlsson holds the song together with a semi-shuffling bassline. Hoyles’ approach is breathy and fits well with Skånska Mord overall, but there’s a sense in putting that song up front, followed by the moodier “A Black Day” and “Lord of Space and Time” that Skånska Mord are frontloading the tracklisting, perhaps more than they necessarily need to. There’s plenty to Paths to Charon that characterizes the second half of the album over the last five tracks – and a vinyl-type side A/B structure both suits the band’s influences and Small Stone’s recent shift into the format – but on a final impression, a lot of what stands out about Paths to Charon happens over the course of those first four cuts.
That’s not to disparage the second half of the record, just to say that a lot of the stylistic elements it presents – the progressive boogie of “Laggåsen” or the more foreboding mood of “The Ambassadeur” – already make themselves known on Side A. If Paths to Charon were 65 minutes long, this might be a real sticking point, but at 44:44, Skånska Mord’s sophomore outing doesn’t lose its straightforward heavy rocking appeal to redundancy. Jönsson effectively propels the early verses of “Lord of Space and Time” with his snare as the guitars cycle through the riff until breaking to a slower groove shortly before two minutes in. Here Bengtsson rests farther back vocally than anywhere on the album, and it works both to change up the approach and add psychedelic vibing to Skånska Mord’s otherwise organic but still earthbound aesthetic. Their build is patient, rising first, then falling again, before playing out its subdued course into the CD centerpiece “The Flood,” which proffers a mid-paced hook of a riff complemented in breaks by Bengtsson’s harmonica. There isn’t much to distinguish “The Flood” as the centerpiece – the song’s bounce is effective and in its later moments, Carlsson kicks into a few choice bass fills under a likewise impressive guitar solo, but especially after “Lord of Space and Time,” it’s something of a comedown, though it works well transitioning into the change of course that “Laggåsen” brings on, with its classic prog vibe and tight rhythmic execution. Skånska Mord never really tap into the retro rock put forth by an increasing number of their countrymen – again, their sound is natural, but not necessarily analog or “vintage” seeming – but the sixth track is as close as they come, a sweet melody playing over forest-type bounce, keyboards and guitar leads working in post-blues tandem, Jönsson’s snare runs sounding richer than anywhere else on Paths to Charon for the extra space around them. All instrumental, the quieter jam picks up to full heavy breadth twice but doesn’t ever really telegraph where it’s headed, so as to snap you out of hypnosis as quickly as it put you under.
Ahead of closer “Rising,” “The Ambassadeur” and “Alien Encounter” make a quick pair, the former stood out with a doomier progression, slower pace and darker atmosphere. The chorus finds Englund backing Bengtsson (unless he’s backing himself), and they seem to be touching on a darker feel that’s actually more in line with the title Paths to Charon (Charon being the boatmaster across the River Styx into the underworld) and the deep blues and greens of the artwork, but nonetheless a shift from most of what the album has trafficked, however much “A Black Day” may have hinted at more brooding material. “Alien Encounter” is more guitar-led. Written by Berglin, it’s a classic riff rock that Bengtsson does well fronting in both verse and chorus, as the track veers during its bridge into psychedelic twin guitar soloing and a swirl of bass and drums that’s reminiscent somewhat of “Laggåsen” while also remaining a comparatively bright answer back to “The Ambassadeur.” They end on the chorus and “Rising” takes hold, Bengtsson quickly introducing the mid-range verse over an instantly familiar, nodding groove. In its structure, the finale is something of a complement to “Lord of Space and Time” – moving from its verse/chorus mindset into more open, spacier jamming, but the chief difference is where the earlier track hit its peak and then went back into the jam to finish out, “Rising” holds to its build and ends with authority in a final chorus, giving the guitar, bass, drums and even the harmonica of the earlier break a direction, something they’re driving toward. It may be Skånska Mord’s second album, but none of the members of the band are novices when it comes to songwriting – one need only explore Half Man’s 1999 debut, The Complete Field Guide for Cynics, if you don’t believe me – and the culmination of “Rising,” which at 5:10 is still more than a minute and a half shy of being the longest track on the record works efficiently to prove it. Skånska Mord aren’t breaking any new ground in these songs, but they prove well schooled in the aspects that make their genre what it is, and dogwhistling classic inspirations with a modern context isn’t at all something I’m about to hold against them when their songcraft is so accomplished. They’re preaching to the converted, but why not if it’s the converted who have ears to hear it?Sk?nska Mord, Skånska Mord Paths to Charon, Small Stone Records