[Click play above to stream Sweet Leaves Vol. I in full. Release date is Jan. 22. Thanks to the bands for letting me host the tracks.]
If you’re looking for a sampling of the madness infecting the Motor City’s underground these days, look no further than Sweet Leaves Vol. I. Detroit has long been an epicenter of all things raw and visceral in American rock — and by that I mean The Stooges and MC5 were from there — but in bringing together newcomer acts Bison Machine, Wild Savages and SLO across a limited-release three-way split tape, the classic form proves continually vital in the more recent outfits, each of which brings a grit of their own to reside under a heavy rock umbrella.
Appearing in that order — Bison Machine, then Wild Savages, then SLO — the tape gets more formative as it progresses through each pair of tracks, Bison Machine being the most established of the three with their debut long-player, Hoarfrost (review here), released last year on Kozmik Artifactz. Wild Savages have an EP up for streaming and SLO a demo, both issued in Sept. 2015, but both of the newer acts also share ties to Bison Machine through current and former members. Wild Savages features guitarist Casey O’Ryan, who also plays in Bison Machine, and SLO guitarist/vocalist Dusty Jones is an alum as well. Clearly as each of these bands spun off or came up around the same time, everyone remained tight enough to continue to collaborate, which in giving an idea of where the Detroit area is at (Wild Savages claim Ann Arbor as home, SLO Detroit proper and Bison Machine Hamtramck), is at very least a show of overall strength.
More importantly, the tape — which is a quick listen at a little over half an hour — rocks. None of the three groups wastes any time getting down to business, and with Bison Machine‘s “Hawk on the Wind,” the Sabbathian reference of the tape’s cover proves not to be the only classic heavy source from which the release draws. The recording that produced “Hawk on the Wind” and the subsequent “Soul Seeker” is older, with guitarist John deVries in the role that O’Ryan now occupies alongside vocalist Tom Stec, bassist Anthony Franchina (who put the split together) and drummer Breck Crandell, but their methods are no less righteous than on Hoarfrost, quick-turning shuffle pervading “Hawk on the Wind” amid a catchy hook while “Soul Seeker” rests on a bed of low-end chugging and Motörheady skate in the guitar.
The second track trips out a bit at the end, but in general, Bison Machine play it tight and don’t let up on the throttle, which makes for an easy transition into Wild Savages, who seem intent on living up to their moniker in grit, ’70s bass warmth and persistent proto-punk fuckall. “Stage Fright” has one of the most resonant hooks on Sweet Leaves Vol. I once you have a grip on what bassist Joe Kupiec is talking about — O’Ryan also provides vocals — and transitions easily into a dual-channel guitar jam atop some of the best vintage-sounding drums I’ve heard since Kadavar‘s debut from Stefan Krstovic, who has swing to match. By the time they get there, they seem to have left the verse structure behind, but even among the late-arriving boogie onslaught, they bring back the chorus for one last go. With funkier starts and stops in its early going and a similar overall approach, “Queen Bee” affirms no fluke on the part of Wild Savages, who rage in layers but with an energy that one imagines has no trouble translating live.
For SLO, their “The Darkness” and “Shield Maidens” follow a two-song demo recorded on a four-track, but already one can hear in their sound a beefed up dual-guitar via Thin Lizzy approach that, in “The Darkness” delves in its midsection into some transposed “Hole in the Sky” riffing as if to remind the listener what it’s all about. Fuzz in the guitar and bass goes full-on hairy as the song rolls to what seems to be its finish before the initial groove is revived and swirl-faded out to end, which lets “Shield Maidens,” the only song on the release that tops six minutes (though each band has a track that comes close), close out with proto-metallic rush and a grander approach vocally.
Whether that’s drummer Charlie McCutcheon or bassist Brian Blair joining Jones singing — Kevin Sullivan is the only member of the four-piece not credit with vocals on the prior demo — I don’t know, but it adds a classic metal sensibility to complement the quiet midsection and deftly intricate guitar line that transitions into an instrumental finish, thick tonally but still ready to move and keeping that fist-pump feel thanks to a late solo either from Sullivan or Jones. Their cap for Sweet Leaves Vol. I is encouraging, and that descriptor seems to apply to the release overall as well. Of course, one can’t completely summarize the complete breadth of a region’s output by getting together a couple similarly driven bands and putting together a split tape — if one could, I’d expect to see more of them — but, even in showing the direction a few of the Detroit area’s groups are taking with a brash, classically-minded heavy rock sound, Sweet Leaves Vol. I serves notice of attention-worthy doings in volume and aesthetic.