French desert rockers Wheelfall made a splash with their first EP in 2010. The three-track release, From the Blazing Sky at Dusk (review here) announced the foursome as pro-sounding purveyors of genre, taking more influence than just their name from Slo Burn and others from the Californian post-Kyuss desert sphere. The inevitable full-length follow-up, Interzone (or Wheelfall’s Interzone, as it says on the cover), dropped late 2012 via Sunruin Records to similar hyperbole, and fairly enough earned. The presentation of the record’s six tracks, including the monstrous 22-minute closer “[INTERZONE]” is beefier, the vocals of guitarist Wayne Furter more forward in the mix, and the grooves no less potent than they were three years ago. In keeping with their purported loyalty to a science fiction thematic, Interzone features tracks like “The Parasite Ravages” and “It Comes from the Mist,” as the album gradually develops from shorter tracks on a build to its grandiose, if overly meandering, final statement. Immediately the tracklisting strikes as more ambitious than that of the preceding debut, even as the shortest cut, “Howling,” which arrives after a two-minute opening prelude, tops five minutes and “Holy Sky,” which follows, is 8:38. If Wheelfall – the lineup of Furter on guitar/vocals, “Cactus” Florian Rambour on guitar, and the double-Niko rhythm section of Niko El Moche on bass and Nico Elbow Giraud on drums – are growing, so too is the reach of their songwriting, and not just in terms of track length. Rather than give in to some of the jamming that’s currently so prevalent in the European heavy psych sphere, their parts feel constructed even at their most expansive, as in the stretches of “[INTERZONE],” and Wheelfall never go so far out as to prohibit Furter from dropping a verse where he will, though with the full sound of the album, the lumbering riff of “It Comes from the Mist,” the 56-minute runtime and the general sprawl, there’s clearly an attempt at something epic, so I suppose one might be able to relate that to psychedelia if so inclined. To my ears, Interzone sounds more grounded, and that’s much to its benefit, since Wheelfall seem to work best when locked into a heads-down groove driving on all cylinders, their fuzzy pummel at its most forward.
How then does one reconcile that with Interzone, on which they do so much more? Well, Niko El Moche’s bass tone helps, for one. Though the album starts out relatively straightforward with “Howling” after the aforementioned intro of samples, rumble and droning amp noise, it soon becomes apparent that Wheelfall are looking to expand their formula, departing from traditional verse/chorus-isms in favor of a more progressive take, à la Truckfighters’ brilliant 2009 offering, Mania. The results are somewhat mixed. “Howling” plays to the band’s strengths – choice riffing, vocals somewhere between John Garcia guttural melody and more metallic growling (if you listen on the following “Holy Sky,” Furter sounds almost like Nergal from Behemoth on the opening lines) and well-executed and familiar stoner grooves – and though “Holy Sky” retains a structure, its departure from “Howling” is abrupt and not as easy a leap for the listener as it seems for the band to have made. Appropriately enough, at 4:20, the song shifts to a circular riff reminiscent of that which made Valley of the Sun’s “Mariner’s Tale” so memorable on their The Sayings of the Seers EP, and the riff rules here as it did there, but it’s the jump from one to the other that’s jarring, and it’s no less so when Furter and Rambour reintroduce the initial central riff of the song just over a minute later. If there had been some way to tie the two together, maybe it would seem less awkward, some melding of rhythm, but as it is, that riff from the midsection never reemerges, the initial progression slows down and dooms out (not an ending tactic I’m about to take anything away from) and it’s just kind of there, as though Wheelfall wanted to check and make sure you were still awake listening, which frankly, they shouldn’t have to do on what’s essentially the second track on their album. Perhaps the issue is one of placement. The 8:02 “The Parasite Ravages” follows “Holy Sky,” and with El Moche’s bass playing off the guitars, a more immediate verse atop what in another context might be an Isis-style chug and a stronger hook in the chorus, it seems a stronger backup despite the cut in pace from “Howling” that might have worked to set up the reaches of “Holy Sky.” It’s moot at this point – the album’s made and released – but it shows there’s still room for growth in Wheelfall’s approach, professional though it already is.