Lamprey, Ancient Secrets: Revealed!

Low-end fetishists Lamprey made their debut with the Ancient Secrets EP last year through Captain Couch Records, a label that specializes in highlighting acts from Portland’s fertile heavy underground. The EP, which was four songs/32 minutes, seems to have been given a boost to full length with the inclusion of opener “Cynelos Crassidens,” unless that was just left off all the other track lists. In any case, the trio present a complete idea on the version of Ancient Secrets I got for review, and that idea, in a word, is “bass.”

Two basses, in fact. Lamprey have taken the ritualistic Om bass/drum ethic and pushed it further by including a second four-stringer. Plugged into a fortress of Sunn, Orange, Kustom and other amps, both Justin Brown and Blaine Burnham (who also handles vocals) provide rich, vibrating tone, fuzzed out, occasionally wah’ed to excellent effect, and tailored excellently to the groove that Spencer Norman’s drums provide. In the 40 minutes of this incarnation of Ancient Secrets, Lamprey pursue more of Sleep’s riffy awesomeness than Om’s spiritual enlightenment, but no question Al Cisneros is at the center of the influence either way, and while that’s not exactly uncommon in the scope of heavy doom, one has to admire Lamprey for undercutting all the other bands out there who try and make a guitar have as much low end as a bass and just having two bassists. You can almost hear everyone else slapping their forehead and asking themselves why they didn’t think of it first.

Ancient Secrets finds some of its most glorious moments when Burnham and Brown meet up for quick flashes of harmony – playing off a classic metal idea with their own twist – but the basic groove of “Oiwa” is a highlight unto itself. Burnham’s vocals keep mostly to sub-melodic shouts, but he does show ambition for diversity of approach with a few whispers and, on closer “Thulsa” some spoken growls. Though the crashing end “Cynelos Crassidens” plays off slow/fast tempo changes and excellently sets the tone for the rest of Ancient Secrets, “Oiwa” might be my pick of the album, for its more cohesive feel and the sense of foreboding the quiet opening brings about before the riff kicks in. That riff, like many Lamprey have on offer, puts just enough spin on a typical stoner progression to be engaging, and as the song develops, it becomes the band’s most effective build and Norman’s best half-time cymbal work. The drums feel far back in the mix (would you be amazed if I said the bass dominates?) and somewhat weakened by the production – that is, I imagine they hit with more impact live – but in the 8:22 of “Oiwa,” they still give an overwhelmingly positive impression.

At 7:17, “Demeter” is the shortest of the cuts on Ancient Secrets, starting opposite “Oiwa” with faster tempo and open, sustained crashes. In its closing minutes, it boasts a genuine solo from either Brown or Burnham and the best interplay between the two, showing real potential for what two bassists can accomplish if they were to toy with some of the other conventions of what’s commonly expected of guitars, i.e. one player holding the rhythm while the other takes a lead or having two simultaneous leads. On the other hand, the sheer Dopesmoker-esque power of the march Lamprey affect on “Lavalanche” proves worthy of its name and appealing on its own, so they can go the other way with it as well. While completely instrumental and following one central figure through loud and quiet passages while Norman does a start-stop cadence on his snare, the 7:35 song piques the interest anyway in a very stonerly fashion, embodying the idea that sometimes you just want to jam out on the same riff for however long and see where it takes you.

In the case of Lamprey, it takes them to “Thulsa,” the longest and final track on this edition of Ancient Secrets. Another formidable groove, more thick tones, and “Thulsa” begins to feel like more of the same the three-piece has already had on offer, but the song takes a turn following its extended intro. At about 3:30 (of its total 9:27), Burnham’s vocals come on, matching the riff’s progression, but then the song breaks to a more intricate bassline and Burnham switches his vocals to the aforementioned whispered growl, the wah returns and the song takes on a more proto-metallic feel. They turn it into a driving progression, and Burnham’s narrative continues over a kind of galloping line. His cadence in this part, which begins just after 6:40, is predictable and repetitive (he’s also awfully high in the mix here), but if you’ve already followed Lamprey through 37 of Ancient Secrets’ 40 minutes, it shouldn’t be too much to swallow. And while the second verse following the same pattern feels excessive, I also can’t seem to get the lines “Honor and glory/Were heaped on his name/Many wars/And battles won” out of my head, so I guess that alone should justify their presence in the song as they lead to the last heavy freakout of the last 30 seconds or so of the track, which ends with two crashes following – what else? – a sustained bass note.

If one of the central goals in modern doom and/or stoner rock is tonal heft, Lamprey have set themselves up with an almost unfair advantage, and while the novelty of two bassists is bound at some point to fade, they show on Ancient Secrets that their potential resides in more than just the thickness of their strings and the volume and heft provided by their amplification. The distinguishing factors of these tracks might not reveal themselves immediately, but Lamprey’s penchant for honing in on ‘90s-style riffy groove and the manner in which they present it carves a niche that should allow plenty of room for future development. Whichever incarnation of Ancient Secrets you happen upon, consider it worth investigating.

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Captain Couch Records

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