[Click play above to stream ‘These are Old Hands’ from The Devil and the Almighty Blues’ new album, II, out March 17 on Blues for the Red Sun Records.]
As it should, the second full-length from Oslo five-piece The Devil and the Almighty Blues shows marked growth from its predecessor. The Norwegian outfit released their self-titled debut (review here) early in 2015 via Blues for the Red Sun Records (with distribution through Stickman), and the six-song II works quickly to build on the potential shown previously in a thick, smokey vibe of classic heavy rock, laid back jam-prone psychedelia and pervasive melancholy. The blues, in other words, indeed proves mighty, even if one might still hear the sorrowful roll of “North Road” and liken its vinyl-ready compression to Scandinavia’s still-pervasive retro movement.
In that second cut and pieces like 10-minute opener and longest inclusion (immediate points) “These are Old Hands,” “Low” and “How Strange the Silence,” The Devil and the Almighty Blues display a wider array of influences and seem to nod as much to the Rolling Stones as to Graveyard while drawing on the languidly open sensibilities of bands like Child, All Them Witches or even Dwellers, if not directly than certainly through some measure of shared inspiration. The lineup of Arnt Andersen, Petter Svee, Kenneth Simonsen, Torgeir Waldemar Engen and Kim Skaug accomplishes this while enacting an immersive full-album flow that begins with “These are Old Hands” and does not let up across II‘s 47 minutes, offering patient execution and natural atmospherics through closer “Neptune Brothers” whether an individual part or an individual track is as brooding as “When the Light Dies” or as rocking as the finale itself.
That finale makes a fitting bookend to the start of “These are Old Hands,” which also finds The Devil and the Almighty Blues kicking out one of II‘s more upbeat thrusts. In context, and especially on repeat listens, “These are Old Hands” nonetheless does tremendous work in setting the tone for the rest of what follows — perhaps most notably in its blink-and-you-missed-them transitions and the fluidity with which it shifts between parts. Hypnotic but memorable in its underlying shuffle, the song crashes out after about four minutes in and eases its way into a subdued jam topped by warm lead guitar and kept in motion thanks to ride cymbal and a prevalent low-end rumble. A louder solo emerges at about the seven-minute mark, and The Devil and the Almighty Blues seem to have hit their peak by the time the next two minutes are up, but they draw back to the chorus to round out in a reinforcement of structure that lets the listener know right away they’re in capable hands. “North Road” and “When the Light Dies,” the pair that round out the presumed vinyl side A, bring further confirmation of the band’s control over what their sound does at any given moment.
Both halves of II will mirror each other in working from their longest track to their shortest, but with “North Road” and “When the Light Dies” particularly, the turn from one to the other is smooth, live-feeling and palpably organic, as though they were performed together in the studio in one take. There’s a volume swell toward the middle of “North Road” that’s the source of the Rolling Stones comparison above in the vocal cadence, but like “Neptune Brothers” still to come, it reminds somewhat of Oskar Cedermalm-era Greenleaf as well, even if the ultimate direction is different. And it is, as “North Road” draws down to guitar minimalism before noodling quietly into the start of “When the Light Dies,” the bluesiest single moment on II and most outwardly moody, but still not without some motion beneath. Unlike “Low” and “How Strange the Silence” to come on side B, which find a middle ground between one feel and the other, “When the Light Dies” jumps headfirst into spacious but emotionally-tinged jamming, marking a triumph all its own in character as it enriches the album’s breadth.
True, just about anything short of drone would feel like an uptick in energy after “When the Light Dies” — and that’s the point, make no mistake — but “Low” is one anyway, starting quiet and working over its 8:49 to enact the smoothest of II‘s builds, holding to a steady and slower tempo even as the band gets louder in another welcome demonstration of patience done right. Harmonized/layered guitar solos make it stand out all the more, accompanying and complementing the soulful vocals over a suitably weighted groove. Again, “Low” might be between the two sides represented alternately by “When the Light Dies” at the end of side A and “Neptune Brothers” at the end of side B, but The Devil and the Almighty Blues do well finding that niche in their own aesthetic spectrum. “How Strange the Silence” follows suit with more stellar guitar work and more direct initial tradeoffs between quiet and louder parts, moving into a less linear form in an effective structural expansion that remains consistent in vibe as it makes a tempo adjustment at 4:40 toward a more shuffling finish, turning its head from “Low” before it to “Neptune Brothers” after.
More likely it wasn’t written with that transitional intent, but it’s the key shift in side B’s fluidity and The Devil and the Almighty Blues make it with class and understated ceremony. A flurry of guitar leads and a cymbal wash cap “How Strange the Silence” and stick clicks count in the modern update to classic boogie of “Neptune Brothers,” the hook for which calls to mind The MC5 as well as the already-mentioned Greenleaf while stomping out its own place in the generations-spanning pantheon between them — something II as a whole does graciously in showing the band’s development over the last couple years and their growth and chemistry that still, encouragingly, seems to be taking shape around a broadening songwriting process. Like “These are Old Hands” before it, “Neptune Brothers” takes some time to chill itself out, but it’s not long before The Devil and the Almighty Blues are ending their second offering on a crisp and cohesive final rendition of the hook. By then, the album has made its impression on a variety of levels — conceptual, atmospheric, performance, etc. — but it’s worth noting that where one might’ve expected them to jam their way into oblivion in the closer, they instead finish tight, locked into a purposeful finale as if to convey to their audience that in fact they’re in no way done and have much more to say. In listening to II, one hopes that turns out to be precisely the case.Blues for the Red Sun Records, II, Norway, Oslo, Stickman Records, The Devil and the Almighty Blues, The Devil and the Almighty Blues II