More and more, the leadup to each new album release from Virginian doomers Windhand feels like an event. The five-piece have wanted little for vehemence of response going back to their 2012 self-titled debut (streamed here), which in combination with the considerable amount of road time they put in was enough so that Relapse Records came calling for the follow-up, 2013’s Soma (review here). Their touring has only helped expand their reach, and they arrive at their third album (second for Relapse), Grief’s Infernal Flower, ready to take the next step, not only as headliners, but as one of current doom’s most prevalent acts.
A comparison one might make — not sonically — is to where High on Fire were after Blessed Black Wings. A couple killer records under their belt, an underground reputation for volume and badassery, a rising profile, and a swath cut into the US and Europe through consistent touring. High on Fire‘s 2007 outing, Death is this Communion, could easily be argued as their breakout moment, and positioning Windhand‘s Grief’s Infernal Flower next to that album seems all the more appropriate when one notes that both LPs were recorded and mixed by Jack Endino (both also have cover art by Arik Roper). So we see Windhand enter into this album cycle as a band ready for the next level — and whatever that next level turns out to be will unfold over the next couple months and years as Grief’s Infernal Flower is released and received by critics and the public at large; I’m not interested in speculating how “big” it or they will be — and Endino as the producer to help them get there.
For what it’s worth, I do not think this album is as far as Windhand — the five-piece of vocalist/acoustic guitarist Dorthia Cottrell guitarists Garrett Morris and Asechiah Bogdan, bassist Parker Chandler (also Cough) and drummer Ryan Wolfe — are able to go with their sound. The nine tracks/71 minutes of Grief’s Infernal Flower are, however, easily the farthest they’ve gone with it yet. Whether it’s the consuming mire of “Hesperus” and the penultimate “Kingfisher,” both of which top 14 engrossing minutes of aired-out plod, or the acoustic tracks “Sparrow” and “Aition,” both positioned to close a second side of a 2LP release (the latter, thus, finishing the album), Windhand are the most realized and individualized they’ve yet been across Grief’s Infernal Flower‘s considerable span.
Of course, one can still hear shades of Jus Oborn‘s creeping influence in the leads of the one-two opening salvo of “Two Urns” and “Forest Clouds,” but the surrounding context in which that influence plays out has shifted to be more identifiable as Windhand‘s own, and while Soma boasted plenty of atmosphere, the reaches Windhand take the crawling “Tanngrisnir” and “Hyperion” come across as a natural extension and step forward from that. In particular, the performance of Cottrell on “Hyperion,” while layered, stands as an easy showcase for her growth as a singer and the confidence in general with which these songs are executed. She carries the acoustic tracks fluidly, as one might expect given her similarly-minded solo work, but even “Kingfisher,” which by the time it hits is not just the apex of the album but the deepest plummet of its hypnotic dive, is made richer for her delivery, which feels mirrored in the echoing guitars as only hinted prior.
And while doom is still very much at the heart of what Windhand have to offer, they continue to expand the definition of what that doom means in terms of their own sound. The early-arriving “Crypt Key” is as tonally cumbersome as “Hesperus” or “Kingfisher” once it gets past its acoustic intro and suddenly lurches forward, heavy-swaying and dreamy in kind, Chandler adding organ for even more flourish, but it’s also among the catchier tracks the band has ever written and especially in its chorus has a distinctive grunge vibe, which “Tanngrisnir” complements gorgeously. Not sure I need to note that Endino also helmed records for Soundgarden, L7 and Nirvana, but I will anyway, though the nuance feels more naturally brought to bear and less calculated than the band writing a song to suit the style of their producer.
Still, it’s hard not to listen to Grief’s Infernal Flower with that collaboration in mind, which no doubt was part of the intent in working with Endino in the first place, and pivotally, it’s the band who makes the lasting impression when the album is done, Cottrell‘s resonant self-harmonies on “Aition” backed with the sound of wind to fill out the mix and remind of the foreboding ambience the band has conjured all along. Wherever Grief’s Infernal Flower takes them, and whatever its impact on the band over the long-ish term until their next outing (and beyond, I suppose), it remains Windhand‘s defining work to-date and a fresh take on ideas that, while superficially familiar, are given new life in the hands of a band reshaping their genre to suit their purposes. I’m not convinced it’s their masterpiece or their creative peak, but it’s a definite step in that direction and one that feels integral to the work Windhand want to do.