When New Jersey bringers-of-chaos Solace released what was then their first album in seven years in their third full-length, A.D. (review here), I referred to it as the beginning of “a new era” for the band. Wishful thinking on my part as an admitted fan of their work. True, A.D., which was issued by Small Stone, had been in the making since 2003’s 13 (discussed here) came out on MeteorCity, and across their 2005 split with Greatdayforup and 2007 The Black Black EP, the band weren’t completely silent — quite the opposite, actually; they also toured Europe as well during this time — and A.D. was hands-down the best album of 2010, but it was much more an ending than a beginning.
To wit, they headlined in 2012 at Days of the Doomed II (review here) in Cudahy, Wisconsin, playing what would be considered their final show until guitarists Tommy Southard and Justin Daniels and bassist Rob Hultz showed up at 2015’s Vultures of Volume II (review here) in Maryland with new Solace members, vocalist/keyboardist Justin Goins and drummer Tim Schoenleber, in replacement of first-name-only singer Jason and drummer Kenny Lund. Even for Solace, who’d lived for years under the slogan “Die Drunk” and set their own standard for balancing unhinged sensibilities with some of the rawest heavy rock/metal performances one could hope to find in the US underground, it was unanticipated. By then, A.D. was already half a decade old. Southard had gone on to release outings with the malevolently, violently sludged supergroup The Disease Concept, Hultz had joined doom legends Trouble in Chicago, and a Solace return didn’t seem the slightest bit likely.
Not gonna happen? Never gonna happen? Should’ve seen it coming all along.
The first studio offering from this still-fresh incarnation of Solace, who have been gigging periodically since that Vultures of Volume appearance, comes a somehow-fitting seven years after A.D., and is a limited-to-100-copies cassette single with just two tracks: the original “Bird of Ill Omen” and a cover of Black Sabbath‘s classic “Electric Funeral” from 1970’s metal-founding landmark Paranoid. Pressed through a newly-minted self-releasing Black Black Records and streaming nowhere, it has one song per side, inkjet-printed cover art, oldschool assembly in the spirit of Solace‘s punker roots, and a sound that, despite the personnel shifts, the prominent inclusion of Goins‘ keys alongside the guitars of Southard and Daniels and the passage of time between, remains indelibly the band’s own.
Production is rawer than was A.D., which even at its meanest was awash in careful layering and vigorous assembly, but they’re in there. It’s Solace. Now 17 years out from their 2000 debut, Further, 20 years removed from their first demo work, and even longer past their roots in Hultz and Southard‘s prior outfit, Godspeed — in which Schoenleber also played — Solace make the most unpretentious of returns, perhaps a bit testing the waters ahead of more work to come, or perhaps setting themselves up for another prolonged absence. If time has proven anything futile, it’s trying to predict what they might do next, but the fact that the tape exists at all speaks to a general desire toward activity, and Bird of Ill Omen b/w Electric Funeral finds them slamming home the notion of who they are as a band with characteristic intensity, volume, and unbridled rhythmic force. To be fair, I don’t think they could have it any other way if they wanted to, but clearly they don’t want to.
Obviously, between the two inclusions, “Bird of Ill Omen” itself is the greater point of interest on the tape. That’s not to take away from the Sabbath cover — they do well reinterpreting the track in a manner that gives Goins further opportunity to make an impression on vocals and keys, and move from a mellow, brooding start to a more brash finish, keeping the core piece recognizable while putting their own stamp on it as much as anyone ever could — but in terms of telling the tale of who Solace are circa 2017, it’s “Bird of Ill Omen” doing that work on a songwriting level. It begins at a smooth, moody pace that finds picks up to a more traditionally-doomed bridge and chorus, the vocals adding to the build in progress as they make their way through lyrics that reference Yeats‘ “Second Coming” and marry it to further poetry in lines like, “Any you will know that a life is but the breadth of a stone’s throw/That a hanged man’s eye sees nothing in the dark of the belly of a starved crow.” Not exactly spare, but effectively proclaimed to enhance the atmosphere alongside the steady, forward push from Schoenleber and Hultz, and still giving room for peppered-in guitar leads.
Some backing screams add fervor to the hook and they shift into post-Sabbath shuffle with the organ forward in the mix ahead of dual-harmonized solos over low-end chug, and make their way back through another Southard lead and into final verse and chorus to finish out “Bird of Ill Omen” clean, true to structure, but right on the edge of sounding like it’s about to come apart at the seams and never actually doing so — the long-established specialty of Solace, who, make no mistake, are in complete control of the proceedings the entire time, on “Bird of Ill Omen” and in the noisy apex of “Electric Funeral” on the other side of the tape, which seems at its start to make an instrument of the analog hiss as it trades the verses between the left and right channels. It goes from whispers to full-on shouts and instrumental volume follows suit, but by the time they get louder in the second half, they’ve already made their mark on “Electric Funeral,” and they only highlight the point when they drop back down to the percussion-inclusive, more-“Planet Caravan” vibe once again for the final verse, ending with a slowed-down-but-full-volume last push to cap the tape.
Solace had already proved on stage that they would be able to keep going without Jason or Lund, and in the spirit of a classic demo tape, Bird of Ill Omen accomplishes the same for a studio incarnation of the band. Does that mean they’re going to set immediately to work on a follow-up long-player, that one is going to materialize before the end of 2017, or 2018, or 2019, and mark the beginning of an era in which they reap the acclaim they’ve long since been due? Hell if I know. They’re committed to contributing a track to Magnetic Eye Records‘ upcoming Pink Floyd tribute, The Wall [Redux], and they have a few shows laid out ahead of them, but for anyone to speculate long-term about what Solace might do, the simple fact that the band even exists at this point undercuts that completely. 20-plus years on from their launch, Solace are back with a new recording and they’ve found a way to move themselves forward as a group should choice and circumstance allow them to do so. For a two-song cassette to communicate that as clearly as does Bird of Ill Omen seems like plenty to ask. Let the rest happen as it will.