[Please note: Click play above to stream Moon Curse’s Spirit Remains in full. It’s out Nov. 28 on Kozmik Artifactz. Thanks to the band and label for letting me host the premiere.]
When it comes to a record like Spirit Remains, one of the aspects easiest to appreciate is its honesty. Milwaukee trio Moon Curse make their intentions as plain and up-front as they possibly can over the course of their sophomore outing’s five tracks/42 minutes: They want to pummel and they want to do it with riffs. The three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Matt Leece, bassist/vocalist Rochelle Nason and drummer/synth-specialist Keith Stendler (as of this post, Matt Presutti, who also designed the Spirit Remains cover, may join/has joined as a second guitarist, but they are a trio on the record) issued their self-titled debut in 2012 and sold through multiple pressings both independent and through Kozmik Artifactz, which also stands behind the follow-up. Both full-lengths share largely the same mission, but Moon Curse clearly took some lessons from their debut, and these songs find them sounding massive, professional and confident in their ability to complete the task at hand, and though it has stretches that slow to an absolute crawl like that preceding the galloping finale of closer “Witches Handbook,” there’s more nuance to their approach than it might at first seem.
That fact shows itself in the vocal arrangements between Leece and Nason on “Vicious Sky,” the layered soloing on the preceding side-B opener “Lord of Memories/Spirit Remains,” the added psychedelic flourish that the tambura of Andrew Shelp (Moss Folk) lends to “Electric Veins” or even the marching pace that opener “Beneath the Waves” sets and the spaciousness of its riffing and leads. Yes, Moon Curse want to cave your head in, and with the help of the recording/mixing job Nolan Treolo does (Tony Reed mastered), they just might get there, but while heft is at the core of their purposes, it does not comprise the entirety thereof. Rather, while their nod and grooving largesse definitely puts them in the post-Sleep riff-led milieu, it’s the distinguishing elements of sonic personality throughout that provide the band’s most memorable impressions, whether that’s Leece howling upward from under the riffs of “Beneath the Waves” or the quick turns of chug in “Vicious Sky.”
As was the case when I was fortunate enough to see them play live in 2013, a major factor in driving home their plodding, stomping, running groove — whichever it might be at any given moment — is Stendler‘s drumming. At no point on the record is he putting on a clinic, technically-speaking, but from the first ride hits in the quiet intro of “Beneath the Waves” through to the rampaging toms at the apex conclusion of “Witches Handbook,” he is persistently in the right place at the right time to bolster the work of Leece and Nason and make the most of the material at hand. The album breaks into two sides, though not evenly, and both offer rolling or driving rhythms, and the fullness of sound that a seemingly persistent wash of cymbals provides is never too far from the forefront of the album’s heavier moments. Still, it is the riffs in the lead, and that is true even as “Beneath the Waves” breaks from its initial rollout to a section of layered psychedelic leads, backed by Nason‘s resonant bass tone on an extended instrumental excursion marked out by minor-key twists tossed in before the eventual return to the central verse riff and the echoing shouts that cut through it.
The aforementioned tambura does much to flesh out “Electric Veins,” but a slower tempo overall adds to the spaciousness as well, and shows immediate breadth coming after “Beneath the Waves,” even if it does return to a lumber more consistent with the opener before breaking into a subdued section of crashes and watery vocals that one just knows is setting up something huge. The drums pick up their pace on returning and push past a halfway point into a short but engaging solo and the eventual return of the verse for another cycle through, trading between Om, Sleep and High on Fire influences before finding itself in a more distinct solo section and the consuming cap of its near-11-minute span and that of side A as a whole. It is a finish worthy of the weight preceding.
Its march takes a little longer to unfold, but there’s plenty of room for a hypnotic intro in the 11:26 runtime of side B opener “Lord of Memories/Spirit Remains,” which ultimately lands on a janga-janga riff for its central figure, Nason and Leece coming together on vocals as it marches past its midsection at a not-at-all hurried clip and into the already-noted solo section, which is followed by howling and crashes that finish out before what one presumes is the split between the first and second parts of its title. “Spirit Remains,” then, comprises the last two minutes of the track in a subdued acoustic break topped with quiet psychedelic vocals, wind sounds or manipulated amp noise taking hold near the end as a ringing bell marks the transition into the feedback-soaked opening of “Vicious Sky,” which is the shortest song on Spirit Remains at 5:03 and a chugging riff that gets married with some post-Baroness shouts to engrossing effect.
Perhaps the most encouraging portion of the track is toward its finish, however, when the drums, guitars, bass and vocals all align to move into a section of washing leads and repeated nod for about the last 50 seconds or so. It seems to bring the various sides of Moon Curse‘s approach together in a way that, if it went on for another two minutes, I wouldn’t argue, but one can only fit so much on a single platter. A direct bleed brings about the quiet but tense beginning of “Witches Handbook,” which bursts open shortly after the two-minute mark for a drawling verse and goes on to recede and swell again before shifting into the galloping ending section, a touch of Morricone thrown in for good measure as Stendler‘s snare matches step with the guitar, which closes out on a solo and relative lack of fanfare as if to tease a sequel already in the making. Given the three years it took for Spirit Remains to surface after Moon Curse, I wouldn’t be surprised if one is, but either way, what the band accomplishes across these tracks is worth more than a passing glance en route to the next thing. The converted will have a deeper appreciation for its preachings, but Spirit Remains gets its point across one way or another.