One never likes to predict the future when it comes to bands and what the given response to a release will be, but I have little doubt that when the story of Shroud Eater — however that story might turn out to read — is over, their Dead Ends EP will serve as the moment of their arrival. Over the course of these five tracks, four plus an intro, the Miami-based trio showcase not only the professionalism in their songwriting, but a maturity of approach and presentation that their prior full-length debut, 2011’s ThunderNoise (review here), began to hint at. During the time since that album’s release, Shroud Eater — Jean Saiz on guitar/vocals/artwork, Janette Valentine on bass/backing vocals and Felipe Torres on drums — have played shows and toured around and beyond the Southeast, and while that’s bound to have an effect on their approach even if only subconsciously, what really separates Dead Ends from ThunderNoise and their self-titled 2009 demo (review here) is the production. That is to say, Shroud Eater‘s songs were already there, and in the emergent gallop here of “Tempest,” the roots found in “We are Beasts” from ThunderNoise seem to have broken through to the surface, but a huge part of what makes that so apparent in listening to Dead Ends (CD on The Path Less Traveled, tape on Primitive Violence) is the still-natural-sounding crispness with which the EP is presented. Whether it’s the doomly tectonics of “Lord of the Sword” or the out-of-nowhere onslaught of “Sudden Plague,” there’s nothing on Dead Ends that isn’t the most professional, mature and satisfying material yet to come from Shroud Eater. And so, like I say: Arrival.
It’s worthwhile to note that the four main tracks of Dead Ends are longer than anything Shroud Eater have done to this point. But for the intro, “Cannibals,” at 2:07, nothing on the EP is under five minutes long, which is a line the band had only previously crossed on ThunderNoise opener “High John the Conqueror.” More importantly, the songs are expansive in their reach and bring together the varied sides of Shroud Eater‘s sound that showed up before on separate tracks, so that once the initial threat of “Cannibals” is laid out — Torres‘ drums driving the point home amid not inconsiderable amp rumble and far-back whispers, blown-out shouts — “Sudden Plague” has room for both a beginning that’s utterly miserable in its doomed lumber and a contrasting second half made propulsive by Saiz‘s riffing. Of immediate distinction is the tone Valentine brings out of her bass; an asset to Shroud Eater‘s sound I’d previously overlooked. Joined by guitar feedback and creeping drums, the bass leads the way into “Sudden Plague”‘s first movement, patiently building a groove for more than a minute before crashing to full breadth. After the lead-in that “Cannibals” provided and the first two minutes of “Sudden Plague,” Dead Ends is nothing if not properly introduced to its audience, but when the second cut takes off, it nonetheless earns the first word of title. As faster riff comes to a head shortly before the two-minute mark, and Saiz‘s vocals emerge, semi-melodic in the mid-period Kylesa tradition, but functioning to serve a consuming swirl that only gets more fervent as the song moves forward.
The precision with which Shroud Eater executes the quicker portion of “Sudden Plague” doesn’t diminish its impact in the slightest, and even as they hit the breaks for a slower drawback — Valentine and Saiz coming together on vocals effectively — there’s no letup in the energy or spirit of the track, which seems like it’s going to plod its way out until, with less than 30 seconds to go, Shroud Eater return to the rush given prior, Torres rightfully careful not to give away the change before it happens. “Lord of the Sword” (the longest cut at 7:23) begins with swampy guitar echo that Valentine soon joins on bass, and where “Sudden Plague” shifted from a massive lurch to neo-prog-metal intricacy, the third track holds its course, mounting an it-just-keeps-getting-bigger ferocity of palpable tension that seems to want to explode but never loses its grip. The open-space in its chorus is set by Torres‘ crash, and where noise rocking angularity emerges and a pre-chorus bridge seems to hint at speedier intent, “Lord of the Sword” remains a slower-tempo basher of thick tones and vicious largesse. Full-sounding and atmospheric without being pretentious or cutting back on the weight to get there, it’s another place where Shroud Eater‘s uptick in the production value has helped them state their case. Saiz‘s later guitar lead seems to arise out of a haze and bring the fog with it, setting up the contradictory thrust of “Tempest,” marked by High on Fire-style push — a compliment both to the riff itself and to the drums accompanying — and an energetic highlight of Dead Ends that’s no smaller tonally than the preceding song, but unmistakable in showcasing a growing range in the trio’s attack. There’s more than one way to skin your eardrums.
A break after the 2:30 mark filled out by quieter guitar and kept in motion by the drums and bass leads to a rebuild in the second half of “Tempest” that shows just how far Shroud Eater have come in their songwriting, since it’s neither predictable nor repetitive, but still catchy and tied in its structure to the earlier part of the song. The shouting vocals stand the track out even further, but they take a back seat as Saiz‘s layers of lead guitar effectively answer each other while Valentine and Torres remain in grooving lockstep. They end in melee mode, an insistence that sets the tone for the head-down crunch of the verse to “The Star and the Serpent,” which features a more melodic, straightforward chorus and exhausting-sounding tom work. Here too, the band are both bolstered by the production — Dead Ends is also impeccably mixed — but also shows genuine and pervasive creative progression. The melody keeps a significant role even in a quiet break. Valentine‘s quicker bassline keeps a sense of momentum and tension alive while Saiz plucks sparse notes out of spaghetti western ether and Torres keeps calm time on hi-hat tambourine, but deep-seated vocal echoes remain brazenly melodic even as they give way to the crushing payoff that takes hold. All three members aligned in singular purpose, “The Star and the Serpent” provides ample finish both to its own progression and to the EP as a whole — which, it should be said, has a remarkable flow between its tracks for something that’s not intended as a full-length release — riding out a bombastic pulse for its last couple minutes, working in guitar leads and a potent heavy groove capped by a fadeout that probably could’ve gone longer had it wanted to but as it is emphasizes the tightness of approach at the core of Dead Ends; patient as it is at times, not a moment is wasted. I’ll be interested to hear how Shroud Eater bring together these ideas to bear over the course of a complete album, but like I said, their songwriting wasn’t lacking or underdeveloped on ThunderNoise, just perhaps underrepresented. With as strong a signal as that which Dead Ends gives in conveying that’s not an issue for the band at this point, they stand ready to crush whatever’s foolish enough to lay in their path. Arrived as it is, Dead Ends may prove to be just the beginning.Dead Ends, Florida, Miami, Primitive Violence Records, Shroud Eater, Shroud Eater Dead Ends, The Path Less Traveled Records