Deville, Hydra: The Birthing of Battles

Even before Hydra is a heavy rock album, it’s a rock album. The third full-length from Malmö, Sweden’s Deville and first for their new label, Small Stone Records, has its roots in Foo Fighters as much as, if not more than Kyuss, and it’s a difference of presentation and method that runs deeper than one might initially think. A lot of the trad stoner tonality that showed up on Deville‘s first two studio offerings, 2007′s Come Heavy Sleep and 2009′s Hail the Black Sky, has dissipated, but if you listen to those two albums in line with the 11 tracks of Hydra, the latest still seems a logical extension of their methods, if one driven in a more straightforward, less fuzz-reliant direction. The band recorded themselves, with drummer Markus Nilsson handling the engineering, so one imagines they knew what they were doing and that the clean, crisp, professional sound they wound up with on these songs wasn’t an accident. Even in terms of the songs themselves, one can see a difference. Not troubling itself with intros, outros or interludes, Hydra also finds Deville tightening the structures of their material, so that in its varied array of moods, there’s only one song reaching over five minutes long — the penultimate “Imperial,” at 6:31 — where each of the prior two offerings has had four. That’s probably not a conscious decision on the band’s part, that is, they likely didn’t sit down and say, “Okay guys, time to write shorter parts,” but it’s another example of Deville departing their stonerly beginnings in favor of a more straightforward take, skirting the lines between hard and heavy rock an an almost track-by-track basis.

Clocking in at a vinyl-ready 44:35, Hydra makes a strong opening statement in its first three tracks, “Lava,” “Iron Fed” and “In Vein.” Each is opened by Nilsson‘s drums and finds vocalist/guitarist Andreas Bengtsson leading the band with guitarist Martin Hambitzer and bassist Markus Åkesson contributing to the momentum. Right away, the band carries across their sonic shift — again, not so drastic that if you heard Deville before you wouldn’t guess you were listening to them again, but still a marked change from the first two records — but if Hydra‘s first volley proves anything, it’s that the tradeoff comes in the band being tighter performance-wise and clearer in their intent. “Iron Fed” chugs through its verse en route to one of the album’s finest hooks, something mid-period Dozer would’ve been proud to hang their hats on, and keeps motion central even in its lead break, which hits right where it should at the end of the second third of the track, right before the chorus comes back in, once and then again with more feeling. Hardly a slowdown, “In Vain”  sees Åkesson come forward in the mix, joined by a guitar swell in the chorus, as Bengtsson pulls back on the vocal thrust to ride the groove kept active by Nilsson‘s upbeat snare. It’s in line structurally with most of the rest of Hydra, but “In Vain” also serves as the first signal that Deville have more to offer in terms of mood than the driving rock they’ve so far presented.

That turns out to be precisely the case as “The Knife” takes hold with a fervent percussive insistence and helps set the tone for some of the diversity the second half of the album will bring, but its darker tone is offset some by the license-me readiness of “Over the Edge,” a catchy and semi-fuzzed stretch that lets you know you’re in the thick of Hydra both by how quickly it passes and by the impression it leaves behind. With cuts like this and the later “Blood Crown,” Deville really begin to show their readiness to explore beyond a follow-the-riff stylistic ethic — “Over the Edge” both is and is not stoner. Yes, there’s an entire subset of European heavy rock that has managed to turn the tropes of the genre into a commercially viable sound, and for lack of better explanation, one might say Deville are doing that, but where so much of that side of the current continental scene (as much as one can have such a thing) draws on metal traditions to distinguish themselves as heavy and give context to their melodies, Deville have other ideas and Hydra is probably more their own for that. They’re at their most victorious in this for “Let it Go,” which follows crashing “Burning Towers” and does the most work of the record’s cuts in bridging the hard/heavy divide. Also helps that it’s Bengtsson‘s best chorus since “Iron Fed” and that it’s backed by the instrumental “Battles Will be Born,” based around a potent, riffy largesse that satisfies in both its chugging rhythmic complexity and its overarching groove. Without a chorus to lean on, the guitars come more to the center and Nilsson‘s drums cut to a half-time that sets up the driving second half of the song. At four minutes, it’s longer than more than half of the songs on Hydra, so to call it an interlude wouldn’t exactly be fair, but it does much to break up the proceedings and set up the final trio, “Blood Crown,” “Imperial” and “Stay a Little Longer.”

A current of ’90s rock runs through “Blood Crown,” and it seems like the band are pushing into some of the same territory they covered so well on “Let it Go,” but the hook isn’t as strong with “Blood Crown” and the rhythm of its chorus, still catchy, doesn’t prove as memorable after the album has ended. With its relative sprawl, “Imperial” shows more personality and build, but departs from the straightforward direction of the rest of Hydra to do it. Mind you I don’t mean that to say the song isn’t effective, or effectively placed as the peak of the record with “Stay a Little Longer” behind it as the post-fadeout epilogue. Quite the opposite. Similar to “Battles Will be Born,” “Imperial” contributes to a more diverse side B for Hydra that still uses the same straightforward heavy rock of the openers as its base and is a bit bolder in toying with those ideas. Given Bengtsson‘s penchant for solo performances, my first time through I was waiting for “Stay a Little Longer” to be an acoustic finale, but instead, it’s a bass heavy rocker that takes off about a minute and a half into its four-minute run with one last engaging chorus and a linear directionality that most of the album steered away from in favor of the verse/chorus format. The closer builds, peaks — not nearly to the same heights as “Imperial,” but still — and caps Hydra with little drama and much clarity. So what did we learn? Well, we learned that Deville on their third album have been able to better establish their character as a band than ever before, and that that character is stoned than Hail the Black Sky or especially Come Heavy Sleep might’ve led us to believe. So be it. Fortunately, what Deville most have working for them on Hydra is their songwriting, and whatever context you might want to put that in, it’s going to shine through.

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