There are few lines drawn in heavy underground rock that Madison, Wisconsin, three-piece Romero don’t cross on their debut full-length, Take the Potion. Fluidly touching on heavy rock, crashing into doom and caustic sludge while keeping an eye toward the pop melodies of Torche, the post-hardcore threat of later Akimbo and leaving room for a Sleep-derived riff-out at the end, the seven-track collection is perhaps most surprising in how well it’s all held together. Worth noting in that regard that for a band putting out their first album, Romero aren’t lacking for experience. Guitarist/vocalist Jeffrey Mundt drummed for Naked Aggression in the ‘90s, among others, and Take the Potion (released by Grindcore Karaoke) follows two preliminary singles, Couch Lock and Solitaire +1 (more on them here), so it’s not unexpected that Romero would come into their full-length debut with a decent sense of how they wanted to sound. Indeed, both sides of Couch Lock – those being “Couch Lock” and “In the Heather” – show up on Take the Potion as well, the latter as the closer. What surprises is the level of cohesiveness the three-piece harness throughout the songs, working in a variety of structures and with a swath of influences beyond those noted above, so that the oncoming rush of opener “Compliments and Cocktails” gives way to a catchy stoner verse and chorus before opening to a midsection of tom-heavy beefy hardcore shouts, like all of a sudden Pro-Pain showed up at the studio as Romero were 2:57 seconds into the 6:22 track and decided to take over. Maybe that’s a stretch, but it’s to the band’s credit – the rhythm section of bassist Steve Stanczyk and drummer/vocalist Benjamin Brooks alongside Mundt – that they’re able to transition so smoothly back into the more melodic verse and chorus. “Compliments and Cocktails” is a solid beginning in that it sets up the listener to never quite know what turn Romero might make within a song – after conveying monotony in the opener’s chorus without actually becoming monotonous, they even throw in a little organ near the end – and the rest of Take the Potion doesn’t fail to catch off guard, whether it’s the creeping initial build of second track “Couch Lock” or the stomp that shows up later in the yelling stretch of “Wheeling Deervish” on side B. Throughout, Romero, who recorded and mixed over the course of last year in cooperation with Mark Whitcomb (Phillip Cope of Kylesa mastered), distinguish their methods and showcase a powerful approach that sounds natural even as it melds genre elements often thought of as being at odds.
Primarily, this shit is heavy, and heaviness seems to be its main concern. That is, I don’t imagine Romero sat around in smoking jackets and plotted out second by second how they were going to tie different pieces of heavy rock together to create their own sound from them. More likely they just focused on writing good songs, which however impressive the other achievement might be is at the root of what makes it so. “Couch Lock,” re-recorded and cleaner-sounding than it was on the single, starts slow and arrives at a massive lumber signaled by Brooks’ drums, the plod soon topped with layers of shouting from the drummer and Mundt. Just when it seems they’ve exhausted the part, about two minutes later, they pick up the pace and shift into a faster, driving groove no less heavy but rife with energy and inviting swagger, riding the part out until the final hits recall the stomp from whence they emerged. Two tracks in, and already Romero’s Take the Potion has convinced me to do just that – I’m on board to follow them wherever they might go – and the psychedelic opening of “One Means Four,” some chime added for percussive ethereality, proves easy enough to follow. Stanczyk’s bassline holds the intro together, so that when the track kicks into the shouting verse and cleaner chorus, it makes an eerie kind of sense, gang shouts coming on near the midpoint to foreshadow a surprising rush in what turns out to be a deceptively linear build, breaking here, swarming there, never quite fully playing its hand until the last minute, when it brings back those shouts for another go. By the time you’ve caught up to it, Romero have moved onto the shorter (4:00, the shortest on the album) title-track, a centerpiece that casts off the long-intro ethic of “Couch Lock” and “One Means Four” in favor of immediate pummel with its verse riff. Brooks works a groove out on his ride while the trio crafts momentum out of what’s otherwise a familiar stoner progression, mounting effective stops in the chorus, Mundt’s guitar leading one riff cycle into the next. A solo after the chorus leads to a quieter break, still in motion and bouncing in Stanczyk’s bass, but topped with quick spoken word that leads to crashes that to my ears are enough to justify the Akimbo comparison above. That burst of energy transitions smoothly into the early shuffle of “Distraction Tree,” marking the movement into a second half of Take the Potion no less seamless than the first.
The tone is a bit fuzzier, the thud a little meatier, but “Distraction Tree”’s most distinguishing feature is probably the singing, clean even after a slowdown might lead one to expect some of the vicious shouting that earlier songs had to offer. Layers of harmonized voices make the track a standout even from deep in the mix, a full stop leading to another run through the slower part and a change near the halfway point to the uptempo riffing that typifies the back end. Even here the vocals stay clean for the duration, though the guitar takes over at the fore, leading the way through the solo bridge and into the final slowdown that ends “Distraction Tree” with chiming melody that opens into the crunching start of the penultimate “Wheeling Deervish,” which like “Take the Potion” is a shorter cut (4:53; everything else but the centerpiece is over six minutes) with a more straightforward take, this one recalling the organs from the opener. They come in later into the track – donated in a guest spot by Tim Consequence – but even before their arrival, Romero have undertaken Take the Potion’s best shuffle, a riffy hook familiar enough but given a crunching sensibility through Mundt’s tone. They find room in the song for a bit of the ol’ slowdown ‘n’ stomp, leading to a build back into the verse line, but it’s the faster, louder portion that leaves a more lasting impression; even as big as they go, the organ groove at the end is too much of a payoff to be ignored. Closing, “In the Heather” returns to the long intro methodology (a classic stonerism) of “Couch Lock” and “One Means Four,” taking its time to unfold a dreamy groove before injecting more weighted riffs – Sleep’s Holy Mountain-style, but put in a context more Romero’s own than that comparison automatically implies – when one thinks of a band being influenced by Sleep, the automatic assumption is that they’re completely riffing off their sound, and with Romero’s dual vocals and movement into and out of different paces and riffs, that’s not the case either “In the Heather” or anywhere else on Take the Potion. The closer hits its peak with righteous chugging and fluid lead work, nailing down one last groove before the trio decide to call it a day with a brief ring-out. Their penchant for making complex ideas sound simple is bound to continue to serve them well, but again, at the heart of what works so well about Take the Potion is the songwriting and the band’s ability to craft memorable parts. Their initial singles showed promise, and the full-length does as well, but more than that, Romero comes on immediately to demand the attention of their audience and hold it for the album’s duration. That is, they’re not just a band to listen to later because their best work may lay ahead – they’re one that should be heard now.Grindcore Karaoke, Madison, Romero, Romero Take the Potion, stoner rock, Take the Potion, Wisconsin