It’s the kind of debut that makes it easy to forget it’s a debut. Seattle duo Year of the Cobra‘s …In the Shadows Below arrives via a cross-coastal alliance with New Jersey’s STB Records as the follow-up to an earlier 2016 split with Mos Generator coincidental to a tour together supporting their prior three-song EP, The Black Sun (review here), which garnered fervent praise almost immediately upon its release in the middle of 2015. Year of the Cobra have done nothing but gain momentum since. Both Devil’s Child Records and DHU Records had a hand in putting out the EP, and I’m pretty sure STB had signed on for the full-length even before bassist/vocalist Amy Tung Barrysmith and drummer Jon Barrysmith hit the studio with Billy Anderson (uh, he’s Billy Fucking Anderson) behind the board to engineer and mix.
Turned out to be the right call on the label’s part, and an easier one to consider affirmed with the EP showing such cohesion of approach between Amy and Jon and their clear demonstration of a willingness to get out and take their brand of heavy door to door, venue to venue. Fortunately, the eight-track/43-minute …In the Shadows Below builds so decisively on the first offering’s accomplishments. Reusing only one song — “White Wizard,” which opened the EP and appears in a pivotal spot here on side B — Year of the Cobra stamp their feet hard in heavy rolling terrain, proffering post-Acid King nod that revels in its guitar-less heft, the resulting focus on low-end leaving all the more space for Amy‘s voice to carry the tracks melodically, which she does ably regardless of the cacophony surrounding.
There are only two people in the band — hence “duo,” “two-piece,” etc. — but …In the Shadows Below is nothing if not well populated. Song titles list characters human, mystic and animal beginning with opener “Lion and the Unicorn,” and continuing as a theme through “Vision of Three” (about three witches), “Spider and the Fly,” “Persephone,” “White Wizard,” “Temple of Apollo” and closer “Electric Warrior,” who would seem to also be depicted on the cover art. Only second track “The Siege” would comes through as about the action of a narrative rather than the character perspective inherent to it, and those lyrics, presented over one of the record’s speedier and hookiest gallops, take on a first-person point of view, Amy‘s breathy echoes warning, “They’re coming for us.”
Front to back, this has the effect of drawing together the material under a theme, though I’ll admit that with the molasses consistency in Amy‘s tone and the bounce-prone drumming style from Jon, Year of the Cobra could probably go from “The Siege” to a song about the tv show Diff’rent Strokes and make it work. They are bolstered by Anderson‘s production, the now-Pacific Northwest-based producer having previously worked with the likes of Sleep and Acid King (among many others, of course), but find an identity through surging volume in “The Siege” and grueling, spacious nod in “Vision of Three” that only sets them up to further distinguish themselves from their influences as time goes on, also working as a deceptive lead-in for a burst of faster-paced cuts that begins with “Spider and the Fly” closing out side A and continues into “Persephone,” “White Wizard” and “Temple of Apollo” on side B.
The latter, penultimate track is perhaps the fastest of the bunch and the most straightforward, taking in a classic pop-rock sensibility as Year of the Cobra reimagine Blondie as a sludge artist without sacrificing the irresistible choruses thereof. Thinking of the band’s potential, which is writ large across the record’s entirety, to have elements of songwriting like that — which go beyond even the major-key positivity of Torche in their unabashed friendliness — can only make them a richer sonic experience. They would not be the first to take on a sludge-pop blend — see the aforementioned Torche, and Floor before them — but the get-your-ass-on-that-rowing-machine sense of drive behind “Temple of Apollo” is palpable and striking.
Even more so with “Electric Warrior” behind it, returning to a slower nod in a late affirmation of contrast that bookends …In the Shadows Below with layered-in wah, far-back vocals and swells of volume as Amy and Jon move through the chorus, only to recede again in the verse. By the time they move toward the final push with some more Mars Red Sky-style low-end wah, they’ve built a significant wall of volume around them, but the crashing finish and residual amp hum that close out still only seem like the beginning of their story. In that way, maybe it is easy to keep in mind that …In the Shadows Below is Year of the Cobra‘s first album, since so much of hearing leads one toward imagining how they might continue to grow as they move forward. I won’t speculate as to where that growth might take them — at least not in writing — but it’s encouraging just how underway the process of getting there already seems to be, and the care and craft behind these songs put …In the Shadows Below among 2016’s finer debuts.