[Click play above to stream ‘Pathfinder’ from Lo-Pan’s In Tensions EP, out Jan. 13 on Aqualamb Records.]
One might consider In Tensions and the band who made it both as limited edition. Ohio’s Lo-Pan — who, by my estimation, remain among the best currently active purveyors of heavy rock in the US — enlisted guitarist Adrian Lee Zambrano (also Brujas del Sol) after parting company with Brian Fristoe following the release of what’s still their latest full-length, 2014’s Colossus (review here). That album, their fourth and third for Small Stone, marked a sharpening of sound for the hard-touring four-piece and left a tighter, faster, and overall more aggressive impression than 2011’s Salvador (review here), while still maintaining the groove and thrust that have been central to Lo-Pan since 2007’s Sasquanaut (reissue review here) and their formative 2006 self-titled debut.
Clearly they were a band in the midst of changes or at very least a stylistic refinement, but the lineup shift seemed significant. Zambrano, however, quickly proved himself. With him alongside bassist Scott Thompson, drummer Jesse Bartz and vocalist Jeff Martin, Lo-Pan toured Europe for the first time in 2015, as well as the States, and worked with Joe Viers at Sonic Lounge to record the five tracks of In Tensions. “In tensions,” as in both “tense” and “intensions,” and “intensions” as in “the best of…,” which speaks to the idea that things don’t always work out the way we think they’re going to. And so, In Tensions, which is released by Brooklyn’s Aqualamb Records as a limited CD/LP with a 100-page artbook containing tour diaries, might have been the moment when Lo-Pan established themselves with Zambrano on a studio recording.
Instead, following Zambrano‘s departure and subsequent replacement by Chris Thompson (also Sleepers Awake) this past July, the blazing, air-tight 22-minute collection is a look at what might’ve been had Lo-Pan been able to continue writing in that incarnation for a fifth full-length. One hesitates to call it their best work to-date, if only because as a fan of what they do it doesn’t seem fair, but the simple truth of the matter is they’ve yet to put something out that wasn’t a decisive step forward from the preceding release, and that applies to In Tensions as regards Colossus as well, despite the EP, obviously, being shorter.
But it does showcase some of Zambrano‘s progressive flourish on guitar — he’s a different personality of player than was Fristoe during his time in the band — starting from the tense chug of opener “Go West,” which Bartz meets head-on with toms, and it does boast the most accomplished vocal performance of Martin‘s career thus far, taking his soulful, gonna-belt-this-out approach and adding methodical, layered harmonizing for emphasis in the hooks of “Go West,” the subsequent “Sink or Swim,” the centerpiece “Long Live the King” and the six-minute closer “Pathfinder,” which quite simply is the best song Lo-Pan have ever written.
Actually, there’s really nothing simple about it, from the sleek and fuzzy bassline from Thompson that opens to the backing volume swells of guitar (is that ebow?) that provide ambience as Martin and Bartz kick in for the verse to the linear build that moves toward an apex as affecting as it is memorable, shifting after an airy solo circa the four-minute mark to a concluding movement that takes the energetic shove of “Long Live the King” and the crashing gracefulness (yes, both) of “Alexis” — which actually might be Martin‘s boldest performance here — and adds the laser focus that typified Colossus to finish out with maximum force while still remaining in complete control of the torrent they’re making.
If there’s a drawback to it, it’s that that single payoff, with its carefully arranged vocal layers, choice riff, and all-go rhythm, runs the risk of overwhelming the rest of In Tensions. But repeat listens, which aren’t hard to do when the offering is 22 minutes long, show that’s not at all the case, and while “Pathfinder” lands a bigger impact than a short release requires — that is, it could easily have served as the payoff for a full-length — it’s not out of place among the no-nonsense, headbang-worthy drive of “Go West” and the careening chorus of “Sink or Swim” or the thicker impression of low end that Thompson brings to “Long Live the King” and the wistfulness of “Alexis.” Rather, it ties these elements together and highlights further what could’ve been had In Tensions turned into Lo-Pan‘s next album, and it’s for that reason that the EP is a little sad in addition to being such a triumph for the band.
Hearing Zambrano‘s scorcher solo on “Alexis,” it’s difficult not to think of In Tensions as a showcase for the potential in this lineup of Lo-Pan. The title would seem to acknowledge this idea as well, but while they may not have lasted with Zambrano on board, another way to think about In Tensions is how fortunate it is that the band got to record when they did to capture this material which otherwise might’ve been lost to the personnel change. When one considers the artbook format (the cover is by Chris Smith) and numbered pressings from Aqualamb, the emphasis on the fleeting nature of the band that wrote and recorded these songs is all the more prevalent — thus “limited edition” at the outset — and while it’s a quick listen, In Tensions earns every bit of the intricacy with which it arrives. It is a welcome document of a moment already gone. That’s not, however, to say Lo-Pan have necessarily peaked and it’s all downhill from here as they move forward with Chris Thompson on guitar. After all, In Tensions demonstrates that they pulled off one difficult lineup change in the face of daunting odds. There’s nothing to say they can’t do so again. If anything, they seem to be a band who thrive on the challenge.Aqualamb Records, Columbus, In Tensions, Lo-Pan, Lo-Pan In Tensions, Ohio