Whitehorse, Progression: Death by Sludge

Noise-infected Aussie five-piece Whitehorse specialize in the kind of death/doom that’s so lurching and massive in its brown metal tonality that it sounds slow even on the few occasions the band decides to speed things up. The Melbourne, Victoria, group have released enough live albums and EPs since 2005 to be called prolific, but the sludge-grooving Progression (Sweat Lung Records) is only their second full-length in that time, following a 2007 self-titled released by 20 Buck Spin. At a vinyl-ready 38 minutes, Progression is preceded in 2011 by the Document: 250407 EP, and a split with Rhode Island avant doomers The Body has already followed, but the album was clearly made to stand on its own, and it does, inflicting its dreary, darkened atmospherics well beyond the point of oppression. Whitehorse – guitarist Adrian Naudi (ex-The Berzerker), bassist Pete McLean, drummer Dan McKay, noise-maker David Coen and vocalist Peter Hyde – delve into the depths of viciousness, the ultra-slow riffing providing some groove that, again, is more prominent in the faster stretches, but still holds firm to some doom-based ideals and sets a firm ground for Hyde to launch his all-out brutal vocal assault in the forms of death growls and blackened metal screams that play well off each other on songs like the later “Time Worm Regression.”

Nothing polarizes quite like harsh vocals. Some people just can’t take it. I’m not one of them. If you can scream or growl effectively, fit with the rhythm and the atmosphere set by the music, then I’m all for it, and as far as that goes, Hyde has a handle on both technique and presentation. His growls echo over McKay’s crashes and the thudding riffs of Naudi and McLean, sounding disenfranchised and inhuman at the same time. Given Australia’s history of death/doom (dISEMBOWELMENT walks by and waves), Whitehorse aren’t exactly innovative, but they do what they do well, and Coen’s added noises and electronics do much to distinguish the band from others of their ilk. At their heart, they are unrelentingly heavy, and as the five tracks of Progression – “Mechanical Disintegration,” “Progression,” “Control, Annihilate,” “Time Worn Regression” and “Remains Unknown” – play out, Whitehorse’s blend of sludge and death/doom becomes even more effective, until finally the same plodding drums that introduced “Mechanical Disintegration” lead the way out of the 10:45 “Remains Unknown.” Hyde is a big part of that heaviness, since he never wavers in the filthiness of his approach, but each member of the band plays a part, including Coen, whose presence is immediately felt on the opener, playing off McKay’s drums with echoing rhythmically-timed noises of his own. There is a sense of foreboding about the opening of Progression, and Coen is a big factor in it.

But it’s not long before the track is under way, and Whitehorse’s course is set for the majority of Progression: slow, low-tuned, heavy and mean. Their sludgier beginnings serve them well on the two shortest tracks, “Progression” (6:11) and “Control, Annihilate” (4:06), sounding as Hyde growls over sampled cries toward the end of the former like a half-time Pig Destroyer, all horrific and threatening violence. During the bridge of the title-track (about four and a half minutes in), Coen tosses out a high-pitched, stinging noise that’s flat-out painful at high volumes, but as Naudi, McLean and McKay march the song toward its finale, it gradually dissipates, setting up the centerpiece “Control, Annihilate,” on which McLean’s bass is most deeply felt. The pace is heightened somewhat, but Whitehorse still retain the tension that the best of their genre affects, sounding at any moment like they might burst out into blastbeats and ripping grind, but never doing so. If the groove of “Control, Annihilate” is the closest they come to it – and it might be – they’re still miles from any such stylistic shifts, and purposely so. Progression, despite living up to its name in relation to 2007’s Whitehorse, is largely single-minded in its take on lumbering death/doom and sludge.

And if it was an hour long or any more than that, it might be an issue where the songs became redundant, but Whitehorse doesn’t give enough time here for any such concerns. Rather, “Time Worn Regression” is the highlight of the record and closer “Remains Unknown” is precisely as trying as it wants to be, showing just how in control the band is of the maelstrom they elicit. Naudi leads off “Time Worn Regression” and is soon joined by McKay and McLean in the woefully slow tempo. Far back in the mix and drenched in echo, Hyde is at his most black metal in his screaming, and the band as a whole strikes their best balance of the influences they’re building from. The song retains its tempo, but ends noisily, with feedback, overarching distortion from Coen and a desolate rumbling that strike a combination hard to listen to but that cuts short as “Remains Unknown” begins, once again with Naudi introducing. The closer is Whitehorse’s most minimal inclusion on Progression — the middle of the track finds Hyde growling to space occupied only by himself and McKay’s toms – but the screams in the song’s second half are visceral enough to be a world unto themselves. “Remains Unknown” makes an appropriate finish for Progression; the noise, the screams, the methodical feeling underpinning everything the band does. The song builds to a (relatively) frantic apex, grand and misanthropic, and collapses with more than a minute left to let McKay close out. It’s terrifying and splendid.

The production is crisp and clear without being overly clean or sacrificing any of the omnipresent low end, but there are still some out there for whom Progression is going to prove too much of a challenge. Still, if it’s a litmus test, it’s also effective in terms of what it says for the potential of both Whitehorse and the growth of death/doom as a whole. As genres inevitably interweave, there evolves new opportunities for ambience and exploration, and Whitehorse have clearly embarked on that process with their second record. I don’t know where it will lead them, but Progression is monstrous in the meantime, and it’s clear that’s right in line with the band’s master plan. Recommended for anyone who thinks their constitution is up to it.

Whitehorse’s Blogspot

Sweat Lung Records

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