I’ll make no attempt to hide my appreciation for Ohio’s Lo-Pan, who over the last six years or so have emerged to take a place among the hardest-working American heavy rock bands out there, slogging back and forth across the country to deliver their fuzz one town, one venue at a time, but the fact of the matter is that if they didn’t have the songwriting to match their work ethic, they wouldn’t have come as far as they have. Plenty of bands tour, and even more bands kick ass. Lo-Pan distinguish themselves not only by what they do, but how they’ve done it and what they’ve gained from it. Since their 2007 sophomore outing, Sasquanaut, which was reissued as their first release on Small Stone in 2010 (review here), the four-piece of guitarist Brian Fristoe, vocalist Jeff Martin, bassist Scott Thompson and drummer Jesse Bartz have essentially been grinding themselves down to their essential parts. If one examines the progression from their 2006 self-titled debut through Sasquanaut, the subsequent 2011 full-length Salvador (review here) and their latest, the newly arrived Colossus, the path cut across these records is pretty clear, Lo-Pan moving from a relatively upbeat stoner rock sound to something much more focused, leaner, meaner sounding. Colossus, which at 10 tracks/43 minutes shaves a song and three minutes off Salvador‘s runtime, is their most pointed work yet. Their road time has made them tighter than they’ve ever sounded, and an Andrew Schneider production helps play up a more aggressive feel overall. They are not laying back on Fristoe‘s riffs so much as propelling them forward at the listener, and while pace varies throughout, the overarching whole of Colossus – named in honor of the Colossus of Rhodes, marking a triumph, perhaps simply of the band having come out of the last several years intact — has a breakneck feel and urgency that comes through even more than it did on Salvador, which when this decade is over I’ve no doubt will go down among its best heavy rock albums.
There’s continuity of structure between the two, and Lo-Pan‘s penchant for hooks remains strong, but opener “Regulus” signals the immediacy of Colossus quickly, shifting from the first verse into the chorus all within the first 30 seconds. Like Salvador‘s “El Dorado,” “Regulus” begins an opening salvo of four songs that boasts some of the album’s strongest material, its five minutes gone in breeze and rushing into the tighter, faster “Land of the Blind,” which is marked by a standout performance from Martin in its hook. Lo-Pan‘s singer has never skimped on soul or attitude either on record or from behind the drum kit on stage, but Colossus easily stands as his best recorded output in the band, and the graceful but forceful layering in “Land of the Blind” is among his most effective called-shots here; I’d also add the later call-and-response of “Relo,” “Marathon Man” and the commanding sway of “Eastern Seas” to that list, but it’s true elsewhere as well. Likewise, Bartz, Thompson and Fristoe have stepped up their game, drums picking up the start of “Black Top Revelation” from the end of “Land of the Blind,” a winding riff taking hold as Colossus‘ momentum continues to build. To call the album front-loaded would presume a dip in quality, but no question Lo-Pan bring Colossus up to full speed before throttling back as they did on Salvador‘s “Bird of Prey” with the six-and-a-half-minute “Marathon Man,” which fittingly enough begins with a vehicle — presumably their tour van, but I don’t know that — revving its worn-sounding engine before Fristoe‘s shuffling riff takes hold and the band remind that though the focus has been on push up to now, they still know how to boogie. After four minutes in and satisfying verse/chorus tradeoffs, there’s a turn to a bridge instrumentally that Martin ties to the original chorus well, his layering once again providing a highlight moment with this revamped hook and a play off the initial verse part. Before you can catch up to what just happened with “Marathon Man,” though, Bartz launches “N.P.D.” with another forward surge that slams Colossus‘ first half to a raucous but still controlled finish.
If there were any doubts about Lo-Pan‘s confidence or the cohesiveness of their approach, let the knock-you-on-your-ass crispness within the delivery of “N.P.D.” be testimony in their favor. But for the fact that it closes side A, it feels like an afterthought movement following “Marathon Man,” and on most albums it would be an apex. The title-track begins the second half and is a song that Lo-Pan have played live for the last couple years — “Eastern Seas” still to come is another — sounding more reminiscent of the last time out than most of Colossus, though both Thompson‘s place in the mix and the fluidity of Martin‘s integration with the music behind him mark its progress. That’s not to mention Schneider‘s treatment of Bartz‘s snare; as a producer/engineer, the Brooklyn-based Schneider has consistently delivered excellence in drum sounds and Colossus is no exception. Side B feels thicker between “Colossus,” “Vox” and “Eastern Seas,” less of a thrust, but the hooks are still there, and “Vox” delivers in that regard both vocally and in its riff and crash, Martin‘s voice echoing in an open space and Black Black Black‘s Jason Alexander Byers (who also contributed the cover art) coming in for a guest spot later in the track. There’s a ringing sound I can’t quite make out that coincides with the drum roll at the start of “Eastern Seas,” but the song’s prevailing impression is in its more languid rhythm — its first part is the slowest in tempo but still mid-paced by most standards — and bigger groove, Martin still in whatever cave he recorded “Vox.” “Eastern Seas” splits almost evenly in half, everyone else dropping out as Fristoe‘s guitar establishes the riff and then kicking back in soon with a faster pace, vocals layered, Thompson getting a turn to stand alone as they push into a secondary hook and through to repetition of the line “Straight on till morning.” It feels like the end of the album, but isn’t. As “N.P.D.” jumped into action after “Marathon Man,” so does “Relo” punch into gear after “Eastern Seas,” though “Relo” is the more memorable of the two — “N.P.D.” and “Relo” share a 2:28 runtime, if you’d like another reason for the comparison — marked out by Fristoe‘s lead-as-rhythm in the verse and the aforementioned call and response near the end, the uptick in pace effective after “Eastern Seas”‘ slowdown in reinforcing the dynamic within Lo-Pan‘s sound at this point in their tenure.
Another likewise vague sample is inserted at the beginning of closer “The Duke,” which caps Colossus like a victory lap, underscoring much of what has made the album work — the meaner push, Martin‘s accomplished layering, the across-the-board energetic delivery, their attacking the beat — but is distinguished from the rest of the collection by the solo Fristoe takes beginning at 2:37, which comes to the head of the mix almost to the point of abrasiveness and wails over a steady rhythm from Bartz and Thompson, who return about a minute later with Martin to round out with a last hook and crashing end. That solo in particular seems to have been residing in Lo-Pan‘s pocket the whole time; in the context of Colossus as a whole, they seem to have saved it for last. And fair enough — it’s as raging a finish as Colossus in its entirety calls for. Perhaps because so much of the album moves, and moves fast, and shoves the listener along its course, and perhaps because four records deep, Lo-Pan show few signs of stagnating creatively, Colossus feels less like a destination than another point along the way. It’s their tightest, tensest outing, but in scrutinizing it on those terms, one can hear the potential for them to move further on the line of their progression, to continue to dig toward the heart of what it is they’re trying to convey. Still, it’s an album that changes who they are as a band and stands as their most refined, precise collection to date. It captures them at a different moment than did Salvador — one can see that even in the sharpened edges of the logo that appears on the album cover — but showcases a forward step in a pursuit that seems thus far unrelenting. I’ve said before that I consider them one of the finest currently active heavy rock acts in the US, and Colossus only strengthens that opinion.