The simple fact of the matter is that bands like Worshipper don’t just happen every day. Granted, I don’t think this is any of the members’ first project, but just because a player is experienced does not necessarily mean a given endeavor is going to click when other players become involved. Worshipper have not only clicked, but they’ve clicked on their first record, and they’ve clicked in such a way that the Tee Pee-delivered Shadow Hymns has felt destined to be on the best debuts of 2016 list since before it actually came out.
An anticipated debut? Not that it never happens, but like I said, it’s certainly not every day. Listening to the spacious crashes of opener “High Above the Clouds” or the NWOBHM-derived chug of “Step Behind,” which follows and fosters a momentum that continues across Shadow Hymns‘ eight-track/38-minute span, it reminds one of buying some tech product, opening the box, and having it ready to run immediately. Worshipper don’t need to charge up; there’s no assembly required. Guitarist/vocalist John Brookhouse, guitarist Alejandro Necochea, bassist/backing vocalist Bob Maloney and drummer Dave Jarvis have taken care of everything.
Working at three studios — Mad Oak, Q Division and Converse Rubber Tracks — they’ve meticulously constructed songs that thread together impulses from heavy rock and classic metal. Their native scene has already taken notice and embraced them heartily, handing them a Boston Music Award last year on the strength of their two 2015 singles, Place Beyond the Light b/w Step Behind (discussed here) and the earlier Black Corridor b/w High Above the Clouds (review here).
That’s an action I don’t disagree with — it seemed perhaps a bit premature in the way Barack Obama won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, when he’d been president for a matter of weeks — but Worshipper have been nominated for three more such awards in 2016, so clearly the Boston music scene agrees with itself, which it can be relied upon to do generally. As regards Worshipper, it’s right.
Four of Shadow Hymns‘ eight songs appeared on those prior singles, and while “Step Behind” and “Place Beyond the Light” and “High Above the Clouds” and “Black Corridor,” which closes, are standouts for having been issued before, the level of songwriting on “Ghosts and Breath,” “Darkness,” “Another Yesterday” and “Wolf Song” is not only consistent, but broadens an atmospheric scope that may or may not still be in development, but already sounds accomplished. “Ghosts and Breath” taps into Slayer-esque dual-leads at its outset even as it moves into one of the record’s plethora of hooks, while “Darkness” and the penultimate “Wolf Song” bring in layers of acoustic guitar (a specialty of producer Benny Grotto) for a feel bordering on gothic.
These moments of flourish come together fluidly with the gallop that emerges in “Place Beyond the Light,” united by stellar lead work from Necochea, Brookhouse‘s soulful vocals and the steady, forward drive of Jarvis and Maloney, which might be the most metallic aspect of what Worshipper do, ultimately. In its tone, Shadow Hymns is crisp without being unnatural or overproduced-sounding, but even as “Darkness” hits into its nodding chorus, the rhythm section holds to the tension of the verse before, setting up the transition to the solo section that follows. With a strong sense of structure throughout, it works. Worshipper manage their transitions within and between songs gracefully, and on a sheer level of execution, Shadow Hymns is miles ahead of what one generally expects going into a debut album.
“Having their shit together” might be Worshipper‘s most defining sonic feature at this stage. I would not guess their stylistic development is complete as of their first long-player — at least one hopes not — but for how firmly they nail down the airy spookiness of the slower “Another Yesterday” and the dynamic turns of “Step Behind,” they sound remarkably in command and sure of what they want to be doing. With an even side A/B split between “Darkness” and “Place Beyond the Light,” Shadow Hymns‘ personality is made even richer, but it remains drawn together through performance and songcraft, as well as a depth of mix that finds Brookhouse as much at home at the forefront of “Darkness” as buried under “Ghosts and Breath.”
There is room to expand the overall palette of mood — Shadow Hymns tends toward the dark in its themes and ambience — but Worshipper also put themselves in a solid position from which to enact that growth, structurally and in terms of how deftly they move between their rock-meets-metal influences, and with memorable cuts like “Step Behind,” “Ghosts and Breath,” “Place Beyond the Light,” “Another Yesterday,” “Black Corridor,” and so on, they’re working from a foundation solid enough to sustain any number of future directions. Like the best of debuts, the potential of the band in question is part of the appeal, but as noted, if this is just the start, Worshipper have already delivered.