Ogre, The Last Neanderthal: Clubbed in the Head

Like the best of band breakups, Ogre‘s didn’t last. The Portland, Maine, trio called it quits in 2009, following the Shadow Kingdom reissue of their 2008 Leaf Hound Records single-track third album, Plague of the Planet (review here). They first got together for a gig in 2012 and last year set to writing what would become their fourth full-length, The Last Neanderthal, released through Minotauro Records. Recorded by Abel Adame at Acadia Recording in Portland, presented in a gatefold-style thick-stock digipak with an Obi strip and foldout poster in the liner notes of the weathered-looking cover art by drummer Will Broadbent, it’s an outing that comes with some measure of self-awareness hinted at through the title, the band perhaps referring to their own approach as the titular last neanderthal, positioning themselves as keeping their style simple and traditional in a world that’s gotten too complex for its own good. That’s speculative on my part, but if true, it sells short some of the cleverness in Ogre‘s songwriting and the obvious chemistry between¬†Broadbent, bassist/vocalist Ed Cunningham and guitarist Ross Markonish (also synth), despite falling in line with the obvious tongue-in-cheek joy the three-piece take in covering “Soulless Woman” by a heavy ’70s rock group that also reportedly just happened to be named Ogre.

That song arrives fifth of the total eight tracks on the 47-minute album, signaling a turn from The Last Neanderthal‘s most doomed material — “Bad Trip” and “Son of Sisyphus” — to its more upbeat and deceptively nuanced finishing three: “Warpath,” “White Plume Mountain” and “The Hermit,” the latter of which is the longest cut at a fully-used 10:45. A 45-second intro, “Shadow Earth” leads the way curiously into immediate highlight “Nine Princes in Amber,” which serves as The Last Neanderthal‘s most singularly infectious hook. It’s a song Ogre played at their first reunion show, so one expects it’s been around a while, but either way makes an excellent introduction of its own to what’s on offer with the band’s return — though as landmark as that chorus is and with its position as the first real song in the tracklist, I’m not sure why they’d want to delay in getting to it by putting “Shadow Earth” there to start with. It’s Ogre‘s first album in six years, however, so I guess they can start it however they want. There’s little rust to be found throughout The Last Neanderthal for their several years away, Cunningham reaching high into his vocal register to inject trad-metal righteousness into “Nine Princes in Amber” before the slow count-in of “Bad Trip” signals a turn to more doomly atmospheres that Markonish‘s guitar soon enough underscores with lead riffing before a bass-driven break toward the midsection adds stoner creepiness to the whole affair, the vocals taking on a Mike Patton-style snide air of command.

Unlike “Nine Princes in Amber,” “Bad Trip” is a grower. It’s not a song to be half-heard, and as its second half shifts into quicker heavy rock boogie, it’s worth the attention it requires. The ensuing “Son of Sisyphus” works in a similar vein, but is more strictly doomed, keeping to a middle pace for its seven-minute duration and basking wholeheartedly in the conventions of traditional Sabbathian riffing — something at which Ogre has excelled since their 2003 debut, Dawn of the Proto-Man — giving a solid reminder of just how enjoyable doom for doomers can be when done well. It’s arguably the catchiest track since “Nine Princes in Amber,” but “Soulless Woman” makes more of an impression through its shift away from doom, Ogre updating the pre-metal of the band whose name they share with thicker tones but keeping a vibe distinct enough from what surrounds to connote a change in songwritership, however much one might say the same of “Nine Princes in Amber” and “Son of Sisyphus.” Once again, the turn “Soulless Woman” represents in the expanding palette of The Last Neanderthal is perhaps even more striking, “Warpath” taking hold with some light flourishes of Native Americana in its riff — one always returns to Anthrax‘s “Indians” as an example of heavy metal minstrelsy, though¬†Iron Maiden‘s “Run to the Hills” is no less ridiculous, and “Warpath” doesn’t go nearly as far as either — and boasts Markonish‘s best solo on guitar, which Cunningham meets head-on with Geezer Butler-style fill work as Broadbent maintains the straight-ahead momentum.

A last-minute slowdown in “Warpath” brings the surprising western-style horse march of “White Plume Mountain,” all open-spaced guitars and subdued rural unfolding. It’s something that “Shadow Earth” and “Nine Princes in Amber” couldn’t possibly have hinted toward, but Ogre make it work with “Warpath” and closer “The Hermit” surrounding, the latter picking up directly with a bassline, airy guitar and cymbal wash that reminds more of Yawning Man than Pentagram, Cunningham‘s vocals suitably nestling into the pocket of a still-heavy groove upon their arrival. “The Hermit” ultimately is The Last Neanderthal‘s finest accomplishment, if not its best example of straightforward songcraft — that would be “Nine Princes in Amber” — and its poise isn’t to be understated, playing out in a languid, immersive 10-plus minutes that particularly with “White Plume Mountain” as a lead-in do much to undercut Ogre‘s title. There’s really nothing “neanderthal” about it. An exploratory midsection leads to a fitting apex and then back to a quiet verse and ending chorus, so control is maintained over the album’s most expansive cut, and The Last Neanderthal is giving a stomping, noise-topped start-stop finish made consistent with what came before it via an utter lack of pretense. Indeed that humility (and at times, humor) resounds from the whole The Last Neanderthal, and Ogre make it clear that while their fourth long-player and the marker of their return may wind up as their most progressive outing to date, they’re not going to let that go to their heads.

Ogre, “Nine Princes in Amber” official video

Ogre on Thee Facebooks

Minotauro Records

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