Underrated Philly instrumentalists Serpent Throne have a talent for making songs memorable without the use of lyrics. Brother Lucifer is their fourth album, released through Prophase Records, and it follows behind 2010’s White Summer – Black Winter (review here) in furthering the four-piece’s wailing chemistry. As with the last record, guitarists and principle songwriters Don Argott and Demian Fenton lead the charge here while the rhythm section of drummer Sean-Paul Fenton (brother to Demian) and bassist Colin Smith provide a solid foundation of groove that I’d almost call an anchor were it not so able to shift at a moment’s notice. The eight-track/39-minute full-length basks in stoner guitar glories, taking classic metal harmonics and using them to elicit instrumental hooks that stay with the listener long after closer “Napalm Mourning” has faded. As with any sans-vocals release, Brother Lucifer relies heavily on its artwork to reinforce the atmosphere of its songs, and so from the jungle spectre and helicopter above the treeline evoking Apocalypse Now to the photo on the CD’s inside liner of helmeted troops crossing a rice paddy, it’s pretty clear Argott and Fenton had the Vietnam War on their minds when putting together the material. If there’s a direct narrative at work in the flow of tracks, I don’t know, but certainly titles like “Foxtrot Tango Whiskey” (a clever allusion to the acronym FTW, which in internet speak is “For the Win,” but I’d suspect is actually a reference to its original and more timely to the Vietnam-era meaning, “Fuck the World” – Serpent Throne’s prior and current ‘70s worship can stand as further argument in favor of the interpretation, and their history of bikerisms as seen on their 2007 debut, Ride Satan Ride), “Widowmaker” (the nickname given to the AR-18 rifle), “Fubar” (itself derived from a military acronym, “Fucked Up Beyond all Repair”), and “Napalm Mourning” (also a reference to Apocalypse Now, given to a play on words) feed into this theme, while side A’s “Devil’s Breath” and “Brother Lucifer” – even the CD tracklisting is broken into sides – comport with Serpent Throne’s long-established penchant for heavy rock Devil-worshiping traditionalism. Second cut “Enough Rope to Hang Yourself” and side B’s corresponding “As the Crow Flies” seem not necessarily to belong to either sphere, but neither are they out of place, the former answering the opener’s bombastic crash with some of Brother Lucifer’s most landmark leadwork and “As the Crow Flies” offering an acoustic build into driving riffs that set up the psychedelia to come on “Fubar,” each functioning to serve the album’s overarching flow.
Which is paramount. Foremost, Brother Lucifer sets up the listener for a direct, album-long ride. Leaner and a full six minutes shorter than White Summer – Black Winter, it’s also more focused, so that as mellotron emerges to add drama to side B, the effect can be genuinely startling after side A’s rush, Fenton and Argott playing leads off riffs on “Enough Rope to Hang Yourself” in a way that sets up Serpent Throne’s chief dynamic. They are guitar rock, through and through, but as up front as the six-stringers are, it’s pivotal to understand the role of Smith’s bass and Sean-Paul’s drums in establishing the sway and swagger underlying the screaming leads that typify so much of the band’s approach. In harmony, the two guitars are given to triumphant runs, but Brother Lucifer has less raucous moments as well, not so much in “Foxtrot Tango Whiskey,” which makes no attempt to interrupt its movement from one killer riff to the next, but in the second half of “Enough Rope to Hang Yourself,” and in the midsection of the subsequent ultra-groover “Devil’s Breath,” they hint at the flourish to come with what sounds an awful lot like Hammond scratch backing airier leads en route to bookending with a stop and return to the nod-worthy groove that began, Demian and Don adding a little soul to the slower final run. And though its title might not immediately feed the Vietnam/military theme, the snare march and dirge leads that introduce “Brother Lucifer” definitely do, prior to gong-ing into the song proper, which at 6:19 is the longest on the first half of the album. This is mirrored on the second half with “Napalm Mourning,” which is the longest on Brother Lucifer as a whole at 6:25, and one more show of Serpent Throne’s sense of structure – of course that’s audible throughout as well. The title-track riffs out for a while in a progression less bouncing but consistent with “Devil’s Breath” and drops into a contemplative, quiet break soon to be built up with (what else?) soloing accompanied by mellotron strings, casting a drama that crashes and fades to end side A, leading to the Iommian solo that starts “Widowmaker” before the Iron Maiden-style pop and chug takes hold.
If it seems like a lot of motion, it is. Brother Lucifer, even in its quieter stretches, is never completely at rest, and the forward momentum Serpent Throne build from track to track is considerable. One wonders how different the experience would be on an actual LP, since with the CD this momentum works so well as the band pushes along from “Brother Lucifer” into “Widowmaker,” but in the linear form, it only emphasizes how tight their approach has become and how crisply it’s presented here. “Widowmaker”’s runs give way to up-and-down-the-fretboard climbs that Sean-Paul matches with a snare roll and open into a rare guitar break Colin holds down on bass to set a bed for a bluesier, echoing solo to come. That build winds up consuming much of the song’s second half, which makes the bit of finger at the start of “As the Crow Flies” all the more welcome. It’s a well-placed respite that, even so, carries on the push of Brother Lucifer as a whole, the song soon enough kicking into a shredfest that, at 2:24, slams into grandiose dual-riffing and matching leadwork that even the bass gets in line behind. Gradually, the guitars divide, one layer to more open riffing, another keeping the movement central, but they come back together to close out, letting “Fubar” further the scope with more subdued riffs and a heavy psych vibe that builds over the brief 2:46 runtime to a rolling groove and satisfying mini-peak, fading out to chirping crickets that give the also quiet open of “Napalm Mourning” an immediate sense of theater even as Sean-Paul’s ride announces some of the tension to come. By this time, it’s clear just how dynamic the two guitars are when playing separate and together and the various effects they can have on the listener, but “Napalm Mourning” also adds acoustics to the mix à la “As the Crow Flies” and more underlying mellotron that helps give the ending to the album its grandiose feel, a relative pause leading to the final rush, which despite keeping a middle pace is clearly intended as Brother Lucifer’s payoff and works well to meet that intent. The mellotron rejoins, resulting in a mounting swirl with the guitar soloing, and though they’re never raging at the end, the patience of the finish gives it an even more dramatic feel as the long fadeout to silence begins. If they’re war weary, they’ve yet to show it, and after repeat visits to Brother Lucifer, my only hope is that Serpent Throne, who’ve long since conquered any audience their native Philadelphia might see fit to throw their way, get out to tour the material some, since it’s certainly strong enough to warrant it, and with White Summer – Black Winter, its 2009 predecessor, The Battle of Old Crow, and Ride Satan Ride to draw from, they’ve got more than enough of a catalog to put together a righteous and fittingly vibrant set. Time will tell on that, but whether or not they hit the road with it, Brother Lucifer stands as a testament to their prowess as songwriters in constructing varied, memorable cuts that work impeccably well together in crafting a full-length vibe. Serpent Throne consistently prove a band not to be ignored.
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