With their fifth album, Trails and Passes, Swedish heavy rockers Greenleaf hit reset — and not for the first time. After the grandiose feel of 2012′s Nest of Vipers (review here), the one-time side-project of Borlänge-based Dozer guitarist Tommi Holappa parted ways with the bulk of its lineup, including vocalist Oskar Cedermalm (also Truckfighters), guitarist Johan Rockner (also Dozer) and drummer Olle Mårthans (also Dozer). That would be enough change for any band to go through in two years’ time, but Trails and Passes (released by Small Stone) also marks a considerable turn in methodology, and where Greenleaf formerly played host to numerous guest appearances from countrymen luminaries like Lowrider vocalist Peder Bergstrand (who also sang on the initial Greenleaf EP back in 2000; someday it will be mine), Dozer guitarist/vocalist Fredrik Nordin (who also sang on the first two Greenleaf full-lengths, 2001′s Revolution Rock and 2003′s Secret Alphabets), organist Per Wiberg (formerly of Opeth and now in Spiritual Beggars) and others, this time around, it’s a four-piece band and that’s it. You get guitar, bass, vocals and drums. Simple, and more to the point, tour-able. For Greenleaf to hit the road before would’ve required a family band, but with the inclusion of new vocalist Arvid Jonsson and drummer Sebastian Olsson, the band sounds ready to bring this material to a live setting and capture its rawer appeal in full force. Whether or not the album was produced with the intent of Greenleaf shifting into being a harder-touring act, I don’t know – Dozer‘s hiatus seems to be ongoing, so it’s easy to imagine Holappa getting the itch — but it works out that way anyhow. There are some more complex vocal arrangements on songs like “Depth of the Sun” and the title-track, but on the whole, Trails and Passes feels more stage-primed than anything Greenleaf has produced in over a decade.
Of course, while there are no shortage of changes at hand with the nine-track/42-minute run of Trails and Passes, there’s plenty of continuity as well. As with Nest of Vipers, instrumental recording for Trails and Passes was helmed by former Greenleaf, former Demon Cleaner and current The Old Wind drummer Karl Daniel Lidén, and the partnership between Holappa and bassist/co-founder Bengt Bäcke remains central to the course of this material. One need hear only the interplay of guitar and bass on the later cut “The Drum” to get a sense of the pervasive chemistry between them. Some of Jonsson‘s vocals come in a style not so dissimilar from Cedermalm‘s, particularly on tracks like “Ocean Deep” and “Equators,” and Holappa‘s songwriting also makes for a consistent factor tying Trails and Passes to Greenleaf‘s prior work. The guitarist is one of heavy rock’s finest craftsmen — period — and cuts like those already mentioned as well as the hook-minded opener “Our Mother Ash,” the funk-via-Clutch‘s-”Profits-of-Doom” of “Humans” and the eight-minute exploratory build of “With Eyes Wide Open” serve all the more as a showcase for songwriting with the relative lack of frills surrounding. Trails and Passes emerges as an album that’s exceedingly easy to listen to on repeat. “Our Mother Ash” and “Ocean Deep” set up a series of tradeoffs between straight-ahead rockers and more contemplative material that continues until “Trails and Passes” caps with a blend of the airier elements at work on “Depth of the Sun,” “With Eyes Wide Open” and “Bound to be Machines” and the irresistible push of the cowbell-infused “Equators” (on which both Lidén‘s production and Olsson‘s creative fills are distinguished) and the have-chorus-will-travel “The Drum,” Bäcke serving as the foundation for a finale worthy both of Greenleaf‘s past efforts and the considerable achievements of their current incarnation.
That’s not to say that those songs answering the more straightforward material — but for the exception of “Bound to be Machines” at 4:15, they’re also longer, but by then the structure is shifting anyway heading into the closer — aren’t also ridiculously catchy. “Depth of the Sun” is the most resonant of the initial impressions Trails and Passes makes, with Jonsson carrying a melody built to implant itself in heavy rotation on the listener’s mental jukebox, and somehow, amid all the experimental guitar noise and ambience of “With Eyes Wide Open,” Greenleaf still find room for a triumph of a hook, Jonsson this time channeling his inner Fredrik Nordin hitting a falsetto as the instrumental build approaches its payoff. The contrast comes not in how memorable the songs are, but in how they get there. Perhaps the most glaring of the switches is that between “With Eyes Wide Open” and “The Drum.” The former track comes out of “Humans” with a sprawling feel that only gets wider as it progresses, and “The Drum” takes hold immediately, is done in under three minutes, and is a work of pure catchiness and classic heavy swing. Its steady funk and groove are present as well in “Humans,” “Equators,” and “Our Mother Ash” — though the opener and closing title-track seem to be in conversation with each other too — but nowhere is that taken quite as deeply to the root as on “The Drum,” bringing the dynamic movement from one vibe to another on Trails and Passes into its starkest relief. One could and I’d be more than happy to argue this dynamic is a modus derived straight from heavy ’70s rock, but for Greenleaf, it’s also an update of what they’ve been doing all along. Even going back to 2001′s Revolution Rock full-length debut, their allegiance has been to traditional forms, so as much as Trails and Passes is moving forward in lineup and execution, it’s by no means letting go of what has made Greenleaf so special all along. As a fan of the band, I’m also glad to see Trails and Passes come just two years after Nest of Vipers, as opposed to the half-decade between that album and its predecessor, Agents of Ahriman. Whether that also serves an an indicator with the stripped down approach of Greenleaf looking to become more active overall remains to be seen, but if so, Trails and Passes makes for a resounding new beginning from which to progress.