A fervent undercurrent of metal runs beneath the progressive atmospheres of The Search. It extends even to the liner notes of the CD, which not only contain the full lyrics, typed out clear with credits, but notes included for which of the two guitarists — Maurice Eggenschwiler and Jan “El Janni” Kimmel, both also vocals — is taking the solo in that place. More often than not, it’s one, then the other. Shades of oldschool thrash there, but the debut full-length from the Houston, Texas, four-piece owes much more of its crux to prog metal and heavy rock than to anything so raw as younger Slayer. Still, the dogwhistle blows to those who might hear that particular frequency, and the spirit of precision that was always an undercurrent both of thrash — underproduced as it was — and the NWOBHM manifest in these vinyl-ready six tracks/41-minutes, topped off with artwork by David Paul Seymour.
The band was founded by Kimmel, Eggenschwiler and drummer Cory Cousins in 2014 following the hiatus of Sanctus Bellum, and in bringing on board bassist Gabriel Katz, they’ve also shifted their sonic focus toward grander fare. Tonally, The Search, which was recorded and mixed at Lucky Run Studio in Houston, adopts a heavy rock feel, but as it’s presented in such a clean, clear style — and maybe standard tuning? — the overarching impression becomes that of the band’s reach rather than their heft. That’s fitting for the traditions in which they’re working, from Uriah Heep to latter-day Opeth — also noteworthy that Kimmel handles keys, specified by the band as Nord, which Opeth‘s Per Wiberg also used — and with the shared vocal duties, they bring something of themselves fluidly to what winds up being an ambitious debut release.
Variety in the songwriting extends to within individual tracks as well as between them. With the exception of the penultimate title-cut at 9:45, songs range around five to six minutes long, but as Blues Funeral show immediately with the blend of Thin Lizzy bounce and proggy lead work in opener “Autumn Dream.” A previously posted live version had reminded me of Beelzefuzz, and though that’s less the case tonally on the record, some element remains, though the context of The Search immediately broadens with “Harbinger,” the shortest track at 5:19, which takes the central groove of Black Sabbath‘s “A National Acrobat” and successfully repurposes it to suit a rhythmic base for vocal harmonies dressed out with flourish of acoustic guitar, choice ride work from Cousins and later thickening of tone behind the soloing of Eggenschwiler and Kimmel.
Something of a darker feel results than anything either “Harbinger” or “Autumn Dream” before it offered, but the rush of “Planet Void” and the urgency of its push assure Blues Funeral aren’t mired one way or the other. With more impressive dual-vocal work and nods vocally and in the riff to Iron Maiden, it’s Katz‘s low end again that holds the proceedings together as the guitars are prone to launching into momentary fits of scorch, only to return to the verse shortly thereafter, as though nothing ever happened. The vocals are dry at least for the most part, and I don’t think some treatment of reverb would hurt, but as it stands they effectively emphasize harmonies when intended, as in the chorus of “Planet Void,” which is revisited just before a final solo — from Kimmel — brings the first half of The Search to a close.
Kimmel adds organ to “Paragon of Virtue,” and with the creepier doom vibe that follows, it would seem to mirror the Beelzefuzzing of “Autumn Dream” while, again, putting its own ’70s-inspired spin on it. The organ rises to prominence in the mix before all drops out leaving light, intricately-plucked Akerfeldtian guitar as the bed for an instrumental midsection — solo included, naturally — that builds guitar harmonies in layers before shifting into its next phase of lower-toned chug behind another solo section. A little Ritchie Blackmore circa Rainbow would seem to be the initial basis for the start of The Search‘s title-track, but there’s a more patient take in the album’s longest cut — it meanders a bit, purposefully — before sweeping in with organ to its first verse at around the two-minute mark, and the classic heavy rock style still holds its complement of metallic vibe, Katz‘s bass getting a moment to shine early for its heretofore underappreciated tonal warmth.
With more spacious vocals, “The Search” offers a hook as well as proggy expanse, and even after it veers into a more extended organ solo, it takes the time to bring back the chorus and keep the composition itself as the focus, rather than the execution. One might’ve expected Blues Funeral to follow it by ending with a lighter, more melancholic feel. They go the opposite route. “Palmdale” rounds out with nigh-on-thrashy riffing and a leveled-up push from even what “Planet Void” brought to bear, delivered with a down-to-business efficiency and a Candlemass-style soaring vocal that serves to highlight how skillfully the band is able to mesh their influences together.
By the time they get there, of course they end with a solo-topped big rock finish. Well earned. Keeping in mind that The Search is their first outing — preceded by no recordings so far as I know — Blues Funeral meet their considerable ambitions head on, while also setting themselves up for stylistic expansion in any number of directions. They effectively bridge gaps between the classic and modern, rock and metal, and metal and prog worlds, and, most encouraging of all, sound like they’re only going to keep growing.