There has been a genuine stylistic exploration over the course of Stoned Jesus‘ three full-lengths. The latest from the Kyiv, Ukraine, trio is The Harvest, which introduces drummer Viktor to the lineup with guitarist/vocalist Igor Sidorenko and bassist/backing vocalist Sergey “Sid” Slusar, and sure enough, it’s a departure from where Stoned Jesus were three years ago on their last outing. That album, Seven Thunders Roar (review here), was itself a departure from the riff worship of their 2010 debut, First Communion, and moved into a jammier sensibility. A core of songwriting remained, but tracks were more open-ended and psychedelic. With The Harvest, Stoned Jesus have crafted a six-track/42-minute long-player that’s neither indebted to one side or the other — straightforward heavy rock or psychedelia — but cops elements of both and puts them to use conveying a variety of moods and even a bit of theatrics. One of the most impressive aspects of Stoned Jesus‘ third is how comfortable the outfit seems in switching tone emotionally, as even the jump between the first two tracks, “Here Come the Robots” and “Wound” showcases. Musically, they’re both uptempo heavy rockers, and though there are changes in melody, even their runtimes are similar at 3:18 and 3:14, respectively. Where they’re really more distinct is in the lyrics. The opener takes an almost defiant tone. The line “I’m getting away” features in the verse and sums up the attitude of the song nicely, while with “Wound,” the idea is just the opposite. Its chorus, “All these words unspoken/Leave another wound,” doesn’t want to run away. It wants to talk it out.
Both those songs deal with relationships — the first seemingly a personal one, the second, which talks about the downtime between shows, seems more about the band itself — and make for a raucous opening duo to what feels like an intended side A, but there’s an outward-looking sensibility to The Harvest too, as institutionally-minded songs like “Rituals of the Sun” and “Black Church” make use of religious themes and side A closer “YFS” — an acronym for “Youth for Sale” — speaks pointedly about the military conflict in the Ukraine between Russian-backed separatist rebels and the state. Sidorenko isn’t quoting news reports or anything, but lines like, “Poison is boiling in brainwashed minds/But eye for an eye makes the world go blind/Carry your cross, don’t forget the nails/All I see now is youth for sale,” get the point across nonetheless. There is sonic diversity to match, as the seven-minute “Rituals of the Sun” pulls back on pace from “Here Come the Robots” and “Wound” and delves into more severe chugging in its central riff before spending much of its second half in an instrumental exploration, keys and guitar intertwining over the bass and drums only to be interrupted twice by a gang-shouted chorus. “YFS” is funkier all around, bringing to mind Living Colour‘s progressive blend, and the more extended “Silkworm Confessions” (9:11) and “Black Church” (14:45) only branch out further on an immersive side B, the chorus for the former an almost Mastodonic shout and the latter gradually fading into a pummeling, militant snare march and doomed vibe early and breaking off after 10 minutes in to organ-laced, brooding cult rock. What unites the closing duo (which make up more than half the runtime between them) is a sense of drama in the vocal delivery, Stoned Jesus toying with these various performance elements and their audience alike. Much to their credit, they make it work.
And the musical turn of the closer, from militarism to mystique, is not random. One can trace a religious theme all the way back in Stoned Jesus‘ work to the title First Communion, and particularly in light of the ongoing armed conflict in Kyiv, the band tying these ideas together gives their work a new, broader context. That said, The Harvest also rocks, and one can engage it on that level as well and find it rife with hooks, movement and heft. Whether it’s the tonal largesse of “Rituals of the Sun” or the opening shout of “Jesus Christ!” that marks the full-sprint rush of “Here Come the Robots” or the melodic catchiness of “Wound,” the album offers as many sonic points of satisfaction as conceptual ones, and the palette gets richer as they move into “YFS,” “Silkworm Confessions” — in which a “harvest of souls” is mentioned from which the album’s title derives and, accordingly, its artwork with the figure of Death on the front cover — and “Black Church.” The last two cuts bring about a shift in method, but across The Harvest‘s span, Stoned Jesus remain firmly in control of where they want to take their material and how they want to get there, so that by the time the album is done, the only conclusion to draw is that after initially feeling their way out sound-wise, they’re that much closer to what they want to be. Of their three albums to date, The Harvest is easily the most individualized of the bunch, and while it may be that subsequent releases will present changes in approach of their own as Stoned Jesus continue to experiment and progress, the foundation from which they launch those explorations will be that much sturdier for the work they’ve done here and for how much of their own style, of themselves, they have put into it.