Ichabod, Merrimack: A River and its People

ichabod merrimack

The Merrimack River, in addition to connecting inland Northeast Massachusetts and New Hampshire with a direct line to the Atlantic Ocean — when there was a thing called “industry,” that was useful; in the before times, the long-long ago — has had homage paid to it in the past by figures as disparate as Henry David Thoreau and Mandy Moore, so rather than being first to tackle the subject, Lowell, MA, five-piece Ichabod are instead part of a longstanding regional tradition. That’s important to keep in mind when listening to Merrimack itself. Their sixth album is a take-it-as-a-whole eight-song/49-minute full-length with songs purposefully bleeding one into the next expansive in both its sonic breadth and emotional core, dedicated to the memory of the mothers of founding guitarist Dave Iverson and vocalist John Fadden, who made his debut with Ichabod on 2012’s Dreamscapes from Dead Space. That album was a beast of aggressive metal, heavy rock vibing and psychedelic density, but with the concept or at very least central thematic that Merrimack holds, and for the worn-on-sleeve personal attachment made so plain throughout the sixth outing’s span, it would be a mistake to call Merrimack anything other than Ichabod‘s finest and most complex work to date. Persistently underrated throughout their 15-plus years and across records like 2003’s Let the Bad Times Roll, 2005’s Reaching Empyrean and 2009’s 2012 (review here), they’ve always had the ability to bring a sense of mood to their output, but Merrimack brings this to a new level, and whether it’s the raging “Squall” on which one can almost hear intense rain pounding windows or the Blind Melon-style serenity found in the midsection guitar of the subsequent “Watershed,” the band — IversonFadden, bassist Greg Dellaria, guitarist Jason Adam and drummer Phil MacKay — prove utterly fearless throughout Merrimack‘s winding, flowing course.

Performances across the tracks bear that out, and Merrimack likewise benefits from the clarity of its production, helmed by Glenn Smith at Amps vs. Ohms in Cambridge, MA. The sound neither lacks punch nor is too muddled, which seems to bringing out the dynamics all the more of turns in songs like “Life at the Loom” and “The Ballad of Hannah Dustin,” whose kidnapping by Native Americans in the 1690s and her ensuing killing 10 of them with a hatchet became a rallying narrative more than a century later as destiny was manifest in settlement expansion and genocide — Thoreau also wrote about her. Ichabod open with more modern fare in “The Strong Place,” a 1:50 acoustic-led workingman’s folk shanty that boasts group backing vocals behind Fadden‘s northern twang, a stomp behind him in verses that opens with electric guitar in the chorus to give a somewhat auspicious, resoundingly dudely first impression, more outright fun than a lot of what follows on “Two Brothers Rock” and “Squall,” the former taking hold with a gradually unfolding post-grunge psychedelia, wah prevalent in Iverson‘s open-spaced progression. They’re building subtly throughout the first half of the track, and sure enough, “Two Brothers Rock” kicks into a heavier push shortly before the four-minute mark, Fadden switching to harsher shouts for the first of many such fluid transitions. His ability to match his approach to the instrumental turns behind him — he is a powerful singer, clean or otherwise — is key to Merrimack‘s ultimate success, and he carries the intensity of “Two Brothers Rock” into a noise-laden solo and building wash of noise, the track eventually brought down amid a chugging rumble that leads to “Squall,” both the longest and most accomplished cut on the album.

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More immediate in its impact than “Two Brothers Rock” — that’s not to insinuate that Ichabod should be doing the same thing all the time, just noting a difference in structure — “Squall” emerges from a seamless transition and casts a vision of metal that moves outside its own genre bounds. The push of its early going gives way to a psychedelic, gorgeously melodic, ebow-inclusive turn in the second half, Fadden again making the shift naturally, that itself is a build back toward the initial intensity of the chorus, which serves as a landmark for Merrimack as a whole, even as early into the record as it arrives. For an album the stated intent for which is a front-to-back listen to have such a defining moment in its third (really second) track is a risk of sequencing, but Ichabod work around it by continuing to expand the scope of the tracks, first with the aforementioned “Watershed” and its peaceful roll, which even when it gets heavier, retains its sun-drenched feel, memorable repeated lines “All I wanna do is just be a part of it” and “Saving all my sunshine” typifying the bright, hopeful mood that seems so far removed from the dense impact of “Squall” — a triumph though that was — and then with “Life at the Loom,” which follows a somewhat similar course in its atmosphere but is more upbeat and has an underlying tension that finds payoff in a more intense second half. To contrast, the repeated line there — another landmark hook — is “I wish I could sit around and talk about the weather forever,” and it’s screamed, the speaker in the lyrics seeming to be working at a textile factory, wondering earlier in the song what’s happening at home over more wistful ebow, a highlight bassline from Dellaria and MacKay‘s keep-it-moving drums. One might expect that kind of thrust to continue to bleed over into the next track, as Merrimack has managed to do up to this point, but “Life at the Loom” shifts in its last moments to something of a comedown, and the shorter “Child of the Bear” picks up from that with spacious guitar noodling immediately reminiscent of The Doors and, by then unsurprisingly, vocals and poetic lyrics to match, the river once again the central theme.

Put together, “Child of the Bear” and “The Ballad of Hannah Dustin,” which follows, are shorter than “Two Brothers Rock,” “Squall,” “Watershed” or “Life at the Loom,” but both make a considerable impact in mood, the former with its wandering sensibility and psychedelic brooding and the latter with a descent into screaming, chugging madness that serves to efficiently summarize just how quickly the band can shift between vibes. A dominant-culture folk hero as its focus, “The Ballad of Hannah Dustin” is the shortest track at 3:13, but it leaves a considerable impact nonetheless and leads the way into 6:32 closer “The Return,” which has the difficult task of somehow tying the album together. Spoken word and tense drumming move into burly echo-shouts, ambient screams, churning riffs and an atmospheric intensity to complement that of “Squall” without being directly linked to it. A descent into tearing-itself-apart noise and feedback plays out before a long fade carries Merrimack to its finish, Ichabod choosing to end on a note of marked foreboding. Taking into account some of the more easy-tempered stretches of “Watershed” and “Life at the Loom,” and the toss-a-few-back good times of “The Strong Place” — that title, of course, being a translation of the name Merrimack itself — it underscores the journey the band has crafted here, and perhaps that’s the point in the first place. Merrimack bleeds out its regionalist love with zero irony and unabashed affection for the places, the people and the history of New England, but I think even taken out of that context and for those who listen elsewhere, it’s an easy record to appreciate for simply giving tribute to the band’s home and for conveying the spirit that birthed it in the first place.

Ichabod, Merrimack (2014)

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2 Responses to “Ichabod, Merrimack: A River and its People”

  1. Johnny says:

    JJ, thank you once again for your kind words and we hope everyone checks out Merrimack and enjoys the journey.

  2. Dan Blomquist says:

    Merrimack is an amazing work of art. Such a great album to listen to in every state of mind. Well done guys, well done!

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