In the world of Ice Dragon, six months between releases is kind of a long time. Not their longest stretch, I don’t think, but for the band who issued two full-lengths last August and September about two weeks apart — and who might put out another at a moment’s notice — it’s a notable span of time. And more than their prolific level of output, the growth of their aesthetic range over the last eight years since they released their 2008 self-titled debut (discussed here) has been even more impressive than their ability to self-record and release albums with little more ceremony than making a Bandcamp post public. Recent outings like the Aug./Sept. pair, Seeds from a Dying Garden (review here) and Loaf of Head (review here) have delved into psychedelic serenity and weirdo lysergic rock with equal abandon, the band seeming at times to follow a conceptual path sound-wise if not in narrative terms, but then also pushing against that impulse when their whim takes them elsewhere, as on the brash opening salvo of Loaf of Head. Their latest work, a half-hour full-length dubbed A Beacon on the Barrow, seems interested in bringing together these impulses with a sensibility of riffing more akin to the medieval, cavernous doom they conjured across records like 2010’s The Burl, the Earth, the Aether and 2011’s The Sorrowful Sun (both reviews here), but one of the five-track outing’s great strengths is that it keeps the anything-goes unhinged vibe of their later work, so that as A Beacon on the Barrow progresses, the material itself ranges further sonically and stylistically. Recorded, as ever, at Ron’s Wrecker Service, and with the (presumed) lineup of vocalist/drummer Ron Rochondo, guitarist/bassist Carter, bassist/guitarist Joe and drummer Brad, Ice Dragon continue one of the underground’s most intriguing progressions, rife with classic swagger and a truly open creative feel. They continue to bend genre to their will better than most of the few who actually try.
And unlike much of their other material — an exception perhaps in 2013’s Born a Heavy Morning (review here) — this record does follow a narrative course. Or at least it’s easy to put one to the consecutive titles “The Rider,” “The Journey,” “The Arrival,” “The Light” and “The Return,” and imagine that the songs are shifting according to where the story goes. Lyrics, which are included in the post with the album, are vague enough to be taken as chapters or not, but as the uptempo riffing and stonerly vibe of “The Rider” launched A Beacon on the Barrow, there’s little doubt Ice Dragon have movement in mind. While later cuts like “The Arrival” and “The Light” venture pretty far into doom, and even the chorus of “The Rider” itself has a slowdown, the momentum given to the album by its first cut, with its unabashed hook, ethereal vocal layering and near-Songs for the Deaf-style rush, proves invaluable as the story continues to play out. “The Rider” cuts its pace for a second-half doom weirdout, but the effect is accomplished anyway. “The Journey,” sure enough, is a march. Or at least a stomp. Or a slog. Big drums slam hard behind a winding riff, and a careening current of noise comes to the fore in the midsection, the progression resuming in the raw-throated verse, the song ending with the riff repeated topped by rhythmic screams. It seems for a minute there like “The Journey” isn’t going well, but inevitably it leads to the centerpiece of the album, “The Arrival.” Also the longest cut at 8:18, “The Arrival” is complex in its structure, early frenetic vibing topped by grandiose spoken word after a full-thrust verse leading to a stop, long pick-slide and swaggering chorus, cycling back through, and halting, after five minutes in, for a longer break before the chorus kicks back in, that leading to a stop of its own and some flourish of amp noise and drone that would seem to act as a signal for the oddities to come in “The Light” and “The Return.”
“The Light” immediately constructs a wall of megafuzz under which the vocals are buried, an echoing, indecipherable drawl that moves atop the slower verse, which gives way to a tense bridge that, later in the track, takes hold following a feedback-soaked dirge of psychedelic doom, a riff emerging but the shape of the song overall more amorphous than would allow for calling it a central figure. Briefly, they cut to just an intake of breath, then that original bridge line returns, this time met by obscure incantations that devolve into screams as the tension continues to build. It finally comes to a head and crashes out, the last 40 seconds or so of the song’s 6:47 given over to quiet amp hum that one almost expects to surge again at any time. With “The Return” still to go, it’s already been a considerable voyage. A Beacon on the Barrow‘s seven-minute closer is hauntingly beautiful; an experiment in subtle melodicism, drone-riffing and psychedelia gone right. “The Return” holds onto the rawness that has been pervasive all along and is by now a signature element in Ice Dragon‘s aesthetic, but its spaciousness and fluidity bring something new to the table for them as well. They’ve done plenty of droning in their time, but the way the guitar layers interlace across “The Return,” the way its instrumental course ebbs and flows, makes it something special. The band never fails to offer a twist of some forward-thinking sort or another, and as much as A Beacon on the Barrow updates some of their doomed impulses in cuts like “The Journey” and “The Rider,” it pushes ahead with “The Return” with a boldness as much Ice Dragon‘s own as the roughness of their production, ending their latest album with a humming resonance that gently gives way to silence. Those who’ve followed their growth in the last several years will know that when it comes to their material, anything can happen at any time, but A Beacon on the Barrow isn’t without its moments of surprise, and whether a listener is hearing Ice Dragon for the first time or the 30th, there’s as much weight in the creativity of these tracks as there is in the tones.