Beginning with the foreboding organ intro of “Overture,” there’s a lot more to Merlin‘s Christ Killer than it immediately seems. The self-releasing Kansas City, Missouri, double-guitar five-piece preceded their sophomore full-length by making a single out of second cut “Execution” (review here), but even that on its own doesn’t provide a context for what the album as a whole seems to be trying to accomplish, blending various genre elements together in a psychedelic brew that’s admirably individualized. A cinematic ramble of Western-style acoustics threads its way across the severely-titled CD’s five-track/39-minute run, guitarists Carter Lewis (also piano) and Benjamin Cornett leading a vinyl-ready march through the sundry peaks and valleys within the songs, building up in length shortest to longest until the final duo of “Lucifer’s Revenge” and the instrumental closer “The Christkiller” top 10 and 11 minutes, respectively. Comprised of Lewis, Cornett, bassist Evan Warren, drummer Caleb Wyels and standalone vocalist Jordan Knorr, Merlin reportedly based Christ Killer around an unmade screenplay by Nick Cave for a sequel to the film Gladiator, and Knorr shows something of a Cave influence singing as well, a low-register sneer à la The Birthday Party working its way into the eight-minute centerpiece “Deal with the Devil,” topping a cresting wash of noise, building, consuming, and finally, receding.
As the single for “Execution” hinted, Merlin are a much different band on Christ Killer than they were when they issued their self-titled debut digitally last year or any of the sundry other live outings, or demos that have popped up since their start in 2012. It could be that they’ve found their style with this album and will continue to work to refine it, or that from here, they’ll explore a completely new direction their next time out. Frankly, based on the audio here, I wouldn’t put myself on the hook for betting either way. Though the material — even on “Deal with the Devil” and “The Christkiller” — always has direction if not a distinct verse/chorus structure, Merlin conjure an abidingly open feel in the songs, and while the production is crisp and their performances nodding at the Melvins and Clutch and other heavyweights of that ilk, there’s a darkness at the sonic heart of what they do that matches the album’s theme. Cave‘s screenplay follows the tale of Russell Crowe‘s character, dead in the first movie, as he’s sent by the gods to kill Jesus and his followers on their behalf in order to live again with his wife, but is ultimately tricked into killing his own son and then becomes war through all time. Not a movie that would ever get made — certainly a far cry from Crowe playing Noah in a Biblical epic earlier this year — but decent fodder for the likes of Merlin to go exploring, the opening guitar/bass-drum sally of “Execution” reminding again of Clutch‘s “The Regulator” but unfolding with Knorr channeling his inner King Buzzo over the album’s most resonant hook. Liberal use of slide and wah ensues, but Merlin never lose control of the song, and that remains true of “Deal with the Devil” as well, as far out as that piece goes and as unwilling as it seems to step back from its atmospheric distances.
No doubt “Execution” is Christ Killer‘s catchiest moment and “Deal with the Devil” the most experimental, but “Lucifer’s Revenge” seems to be where they find the balance between the two impulses and even blend in some of their earlier (speaking relatively, we’re still talking about a band that’s been around for about two years) heavy psychedelic impulses in both guitar and keys. A classic doom feel emerges, presented with the same rich production but a garage-style simplicity, and as one part meshes into the next, Merlin make their way toward a post-jam apex that harkens directly back to “Execution”‘s chorus vocal patterning and simultaneously channels elder Pentagram in its deranged bluesy sway. It is Merlin‘s ability to make these things fluid and their sheer command of their own direction that makes Christ Killer so hard to pull your ears away from. I’m not sure they’re doing anything that’s never been done, even as “The Christkiller” begins its mournful roll with percussion and twanging acoustic and howling wind, gradually building over its 11 minutes to what might’ve been the end credit chaos — the film was said to cap with an extended montage of wars over the centuries — but their clearheaded execution is undeniable, and that Merlin would prove not only so ambitious, but so able to meet their ambition head on, makes Christ Killer impressive beyond its titular silliness and forceful in ways more subtle even than the smoothness of its instrumental flow. Merlin are still growing, but they’ve constructed a work of relentless creativity here, and while it may prove a stepping stone along one or another path as they continue to progress, it’s worthy of attention in its own right as well.