[Click play above to stream ‘Icebound’ from Wretch’s self-titled debut, out Aug. 26 on Bad Omen.]
Doom has anxiously and rightfully awaited the return of Karl Simon to the fold. Formerly the guitarist/vocalist for The Gates of Slumber, Simon formed Wretch shortly before the untimely passing of Gates bassist Jason McCash in 2014, that band having called it quits some months earlier after the release of a final EP, Stormcrow (review here). The Indianapolis outfit make their self-titled debut on Bad Omen Records with seven tracks that in some ways stand very much in line with what Simon brought to The Gates of Slumber and in other ways are a marked departure. Bassist Bryce Clarke and drummer Chris Gordon both make a striking impression as the rhythm section, particularly in the Judas Priest cover “Winter” and the tempo-shifting “Icebound,” which follows, but a lot of Wretch‘s Wretch is Simon directly confronting the death of a close friend, and even in stylized moments like the churning, mostly-psychedelic instrumental solo showcase “Bloodfinger,” that sincerity and intensity of feeling are palpable.
The Gates of Slumber told stories about conquerors and monsters — Wretch seem more grounded in the actual pains of living on. Of course, anyone who has heard Simon‘s prior work will recognize crucial elements like the early NWOBHM darkness and, in closer “Drown” particularly, the influence of Saint Vitus‘ Dave Chandler‘s style of lurch-riffing. What Simon has managed to do throughout his career — and most especially on the final The Gates of Slumber album, 2011’s The Wretch (review here), from which this band takes their moniker — is bring something fresh to that influence and to that of Scott “Wino” Weinrich, preaching a true doom ethic that has both won over and created converts for more than the last decade.
Wretch‘s Wretch is hard to separate from this context, but it’s important to note that the album does have a personality of its own that’s separate from what The Gates of Slumber might’ve done even on a follow-up to their last offering. A seven-track run provides a dense but manageable and varied 33-minute listen, and between the gallop of opener “Running out of Days” and the hook of the subsequent “Rest in Peace” — not a Trouble cover, but no doubt nodding in that direction — on which Simon delivers the lines “Set me free/Let me rest in peace” in such a manner as to make one wonder who the speaker in the song is, himself or McCash, the new band is quick to establish itself as something separate. That one-two punch — the leadoff track crashing directly into the second — gives Wretch an immediately distinct feel, and it’s one that feeds into even the later crawl of “Drown” or “Icebound” or even the minimal guitar interlude “Grey Cast Mourning” that separates them.
A general downward trajectory in tempo for the linear front-to-back listen, Wretch split the album neatly into two sides, and though the whole thing is downtrodden, it’s clearly side B where that comes through most in the material, though even the Wino-style solo layering of “Bloodfinger,” which is as close to classic psychedelia as anything I’ve ever heard Simon play, and probably closer — Gordon does an excellent job holding down a central groove to give the guitar space to flesh out — there’s an underlying melancholy. “Winter,” which originally appeared on Judas Priest‘s 1974 debut, Rocka Rolla as “Winter/Deep Freeze,” plays that up as well even as it basks in “War Pigs”-esque bounce and an element of swirl that feeds off what “Bloodfinger” accomplishes before it in expanding the overall scope of the record.
As “Winter” fits thematically with “Bloodfinger”‘s instrumental feel, so too does “Icebound” pick up smoothly in lyrical theme from “Winter.” The eight-minute cut is the longest on Wretch and while its main riff brings to mind The Obsessed and is trad doom of the highest order, the three-piece find room as well to sneak a bit of boogie into the midsection, which is unexpected and satisfying in kind, particularly following a wah-soaked solo from Simon. They return to that main riff without ceremony and ride it through a verse and shift into a long minute-plus fadeout that ends the song and brings on “Grey Cast Mourning,” a 2:34 piece for standalone guitar that reinforces the emotional crux of the album in its atmosphere of grief and melancholy. It’s an interlude, but both for how it splits “Icebound” and “Drown,” and for what it brings in mood, is more than justified in its presence. Its peaceful meditation makes the “I Bleed Black”-ish riff of “Drown” feel that much more weighted as it introduces the album’s closer.
A massive, rolling nod ensues, Simon‘s vocals buried under his and Clarke‘s tones and coated in effects, and it becomes clear quickly that Wretch are hitting bottom as regards the atmosphere of the record. I’m not sure if there could’ve been a more appropriate finish for the self-titled than “Drown,” which not only contrasts the relatively upbeat — at least in pace — beginning of the album, but emphasizes the spiral that led them to that point while mirroring that downward movement in the lyrics with masterful cohesion. The end comes with a final crash from Gordon and a short ring-out, leaving the listener with the feeling that there’s more to say. This too is no doubt purposeful on the band’s part, and it ultimately makes their debut all the more resonant, as if to ask what good it would do to keep going, emotionally or practically. In taking these issues head-on, Wretch‘s Wretch would be grueling were it not for the work the early portion does in building forward momentum, but as it stands, the balance positions the album among 2016’s best in doom. It is brutally honest, conceptually and aurally weighted, and, one hopes, cathartic.