Recorded in Spring 2013 at the same Bobby Peru’s Recording Studio as their 2011 The Fall of Altrusia full-length (review here), by the same engineer, Shane Olivo, the new Book of Hours EP is nonetheless a stylistic shift in course from Milwaukee-based prog-doomers Sleestak. Where that album moved in a rich variety of atmospheres around a central core of crunching riffs and heavy vocalizations, Book of Hours seems to be working directly to contrast any expectation they might do the same this time out. Now a trio, Sleestak has previously delighted in proffering the unexpected, as their interim 2012 outing, Altrusian Moon: A Lo-Fi Collection of Psychdelia and Space Rock, showed, so their affinity for shaking up their approach isn’t much of a surprise so long as you’ve been paying attention. Still, to go from The Fall of Altrusia, as progressive as it was, to Book of Hours is a leap, made spiritedly on the band’s part toward even more progressive territory, culling influence from heavy psychedelic rock and meshing it with their own conceptualism and theatricality. They are, as they were on the album, self-indulgent, as the jazz piano tossed into the ending of “Lone Wolf” and “Lone Wolf (Patriot Version),” can attest, but in context, that self-indulgence also provides some of the most effective moments of the 23-minute EP. If you have to take it with a grain of salt, at very least the music is of a quality that makes both it and the salt easier to take. And not all tonal weight is forgotten either. While they may not hit into the same kind of plodding riffery that drove “Chapter 3 – The Prophecy of the Great Sleep” from The Fall of Altrusia, a cut like “Five Million Years to Earth” doesn’t lack for heft in the slightest. The main difference between the two releases is what Sleestak does with that heft, how they make it move and contort it to their purposes, which here seem more geared toward classic heavy rock riffing and tapping into the ’70s roots of some of the influences they showed on the last full-length — more krautrock and less Opeth, if you will.
As noted, “Lone Wolf” appears twice, in regular and “Patriot” versions. The difference between them is the vocals of guitarist Matt Schmitz, who also handles the not insignificant amount of keys throughout. Where “Lone Wolf” works with a kind of far-back spoken word feel amid the psychedelic exploration that, again, turns to jazzy instrumental wanderings, “Lone Wolf (Patriot Version)” takes on a fuller croon to close out Book of Hours on a more sociopolitical lyrical bent. That approach from Schmitz can be heard on the riff rocking “Seven Sorrows” and “Five Million Years to Earth” as well, and it fits with the organ-inclusive, engaging grooves held in check by bassist Dan Bell and drummer Marcus Bartell. It seems to be Schmitz leading the charge, though, and while opener “Appeasing the Gods (Intro)” starts out with doomly riffing that feels like it could’ve come just as likely from Cathedral as Penance, it’s precise and given depth thanks to vague sampling layered in the mix and synth. A riff to begin. Fair enough. “Seven Sorrows” follows with a faster pulse and and the guitar and vocals out front but still in balance with the bass and drums. A stop following the chorus leads back into the verse with a dead stop and single snare hit that, by the time they do it the fourth time to end the song, is like a game it’s fun to play along with, though at that point you’re the only one doing the tapping. Between, there’s a midsection break with some organ-ized doom that reminds in its bounce of something Beelzefuzz might concoct, but Sleestak snap back into the verse an chorus, skillfully keeping hold of a structure that seemed ready to run away with the ending of the track. That they do so is all the more effective, particularly on this brief sampling, since that’s more or less what happens in (both) “Lone Wolf” — making it that seem much more of a choice to jam out rather than like they got lost after the bridge — something Sleestak have already shown they’re more than capable enough songwriters to avoid.
The overarching difference in sound between this EP and the album before it, especially given the consistency in production method, can only be seen as a conscious decision on the band’s part, and that further underscores the progressive nature of their approach. As “Five Million Years to Earth” gets underway with an insistent, nodding groove and Schmitz‘s vocals over top in effects-coated layers, the feel is heavier and less directly riff rock than that of “Seven Sorrows,” but still of a similar vein. The lines around which the song are based are fairly simple, but built on and put to effective use with a melodic, psychedelic break in the middle and a robotic voice over a prog-chug ending, restrained in pace but well set to rise to a louder finish. A sampled howl announces the arrival of both versions of “Lone Wolf,” the spoken vocals of the first echoing low as part of the track’s general ambience for a little less than the first two minutes of the total 4:56 before the instrumental progression takes hold with a plotted lead and ensuing kay-laden build, which splits off at 2:58 to a “21st Century Schizoid Man”-style run, albeit slightly slower, that in turn leads to a section of more open layers of soloing — Bell and Bartell holding down the movement so Schmitz can wander — before ending with the three locked into a tying-things-up series of hits. Between the two “Lone Wolf”s, “Blacklight Communion” returns to a more heavy rock vibe, with a large-sounding verse and winding instrumental chorus en route to a second-half slowdown that once more adds samples to the mix while organ, guitar, bass and drums casually cross over one side or the other of stoner rock and doom. The more crooning “Lone Wolf (Patriot Version)” with its talk of liberties stolen, backs being against the wall and sending tyrants “straight back to hell” is particularly American, but feels sincere all the same, and a refrain of the fusion prog is a welcome finish to Book of Hours, which ultimately demonstrates that the already considerable stylistic range Sleestak showed on their last album was just the beginning of what they might be able to accomplish working from a singular musical or narrative concept. They continue to fascinate and provide a take on progressive heavy that seems to only become more their own as time goes on.
Sleestak, Book of Hours (2013)
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