Georgia-based trio Stars that Move released their self-titled debut (review here) in the second half of last year, so that they’d turn around and bring forth a follow-up in less than 12 months’ time in the form of No Riders (on Twin Earth Records) comes across as something of a surprise initially. In truth, the quick turnaround is in line with the band’s ’70s ethic — Black Sabbath released their self-titled debut in Feb. 1970 and answered back with Paranoid in September of that same year. Whether that’s the thinking behind Stars that Move‘s desire to press forward beyond their first album, some of the material from which was also featured on a prior Demo Songs EP (review here), I don’t know, but the three-piece of guitarist/bassist Richard Bennett, drummer Frank Sikes and vocalist Elisa Maria definitely draw from that well stylistically, so it would make a kind of sense to follow suit in their methods.
Could be the debut was recorded earlier or Bennett and Sikes — both of whom play/ed in Starchild as well — had the material and decided to track it, but No Riders, which clocks in at an utterly manageable 29 minutes, does show progression from where Stars that Move started out just months ago. That’s something of an impressive feat — consider that some bands take years between records and don’t grow at all — but in addition to Maria sounding more comfortable on vocals, the band seems to have set about smoothing edges in their songwriting in a way that sets up even more of a flow across the included eight tracks than was featured last time out.
An encouraging sign, no doubt, but No Riders is still just months removed from Stars that Move, so one wouldn’t necessarily expect the second record to be leaps and bounds ahead of the first. Opener “The Devil’s Fountain” finds the band reestablishing the post-Uncle Acid riffing that worked so well on “The Blue Prince” from the self-titled and backing it with some proggy noodling on the guitar, buried deep in the verses. The sound on No Riders overall is clearer and fuller, less demo-feeling, and as “The Devil’s Fountain” gives way to the more shuffling “Witchtower,” Stars that Move seem to be right in their element, somewhere between modern cult heavy rock, classic proto-doom and fuzzy psychedelia.
With echo on Maria‘s voice, “Castles” takes a subtler approach rhythmically, is a little more subdued in its beginning, but finds Bennett nailing down a bluesy solo that’s a multi-layered joy of Iommic tendencies, feeding back to the verse before a long fadeout brings the shorter “Lost Beyond the Stars,” the end of side A and something of a stylistic landmark, with a faster push and backing vocals behind Maria that further distinguish it from its surroundings. Again, at 2:26, it’s in and out quickly, but “Lost Beyond the Stars” is a definite example of the progress Stars that Move are making as a band. Whether it’s indicative of an overall direction they might head, faster songs with more of a straightforward thrust, departing the swing of “Witchtower” or “Oh Sharon” still to come, I wouldn’t speculate, but it already shows variety growing in their songcraft, and for that is a highlight.
Expansion of process is what I’m talking about on a general level, and that will continue in the second half of No Riders as well, less in cuts like closer “People of the Sea,” which seems in direct conversation with “The Devil’s Fountain” in its purpose and execution, and more in the cover of ZZ Top‘s “TV Dinners,” which has an ultra-simple, no-way-it’s-taking-itself-too-seriously lyric — it’s actually about tv dinners — and shows that while they might start out with the creeper-doom of “Burning Village,” Stars that Move are nnot limited to cultish imagery by any means. They remain exceedingly catchy either way, but where “Burning Village” exudes grim classicism and “Oh Sharon” follows with a more upbeat garage inflection, “TV Dinners” would be punk if its central riff wasn’t straight out of an early ’80s arena rock playbook.
The self-titled had a cover of Sabbath‘s “A National Acrobat,” so “TV Dinners” feels like a reasonable answer for that and is a mega-hook departure before “People of the Sea” caps off with layered guitar boogie and a return to the ethereal heavy swing that the beginning of the album set forth. Though consistent in its sound, No Riders actually benefits from its variation in mood and rhythm. I wouldn’t call it anything but guitar-led on the whole, but Bennett steers the songwriting with a mind toward classic LP structuring, and that suits the material well. Whenever they get around to a third one, maybe sooner, maybe later, it’ll be worth keeping an eye out for, but in the meantime, Stars that Move have established themselves in a niche of post-Sabbathian heavy rock that’s both loyal to its sources and moving toward an identity of its own.