Groan and Vinum Sabbatum Split CD: Two Sounds, One Heavy

Nestled right in between the touring Groan did for last year’s The Sleeping Wizard debut (review here) and the dissolution of what future generations will no doubt re(e)fer to as their “Mk. I” lineup, the UK four-piece put to tape the final two tracks of their initial incarnation for a Doomanoid Records split with laudable Finnish doomly Hammond-philes Vinum Sabbatum. Groan’s young, brash and just-slightly doomed take on stoner rock was presented on The Sleeping Wizard with a rehearsal room rawness that fit the songs perfectly. They’ve hardly cleaned up their act on the Vinum Sabbatum split, but I wouldn’t call it lacking fidelity either. The guitars of Dan “The Riff Wizard” Wainwright sound full and are lent extra thickness by their interplay with Leigh “Forest Dwelling Fuzz Creature” Jones. It’s fortunate that they play so well together, since they’re the two members left in the band after the departure of vocalist Andrew “Mazzereth” Maslen and drummer Steve “Thor’s Hammer” Burnett, but then, locking in a solid groove has never been a problem for Groan since the start. The divide between bands time-wise is uneven — with Groan’s two songs totaling about six and a half minutes while Vinum Sabbatum’s two songs are about twice that and half again – but both acts use the space they’re given on the CD well, and seem to embody in their own way the stonerly art that American artist Ralph Walters has concocted for the Eden-evoking cover.

Their approaches vary. Groan are more modern-sounding if not actually more modernly influenced. Their two songs, “Cosmic Boogie” and “Throne of Weed,” feel short, upbeat and about as straightforward as you can get. They are stoned with the sort of abandon that only youth and a genuine love of the riff can bring, and where Vinum Sabbatum injects elements like acoustic guitars, the aforementioned Hammond, mellotron and a more mournful flow to closer “Disillusioned Pilgrims,” even the catchy “Sinister Sister” (the ‘70s backing vocals are a must-hear) which precedes feels more grown up. Part of that could be that the Finns – who released their full-length debut, Songs From the Convent, on Eyes Like Snow last year to a positive response – have an older presentation. They hone in not so much on the relatively-updated ‘70s methodology that comes through the filter of 21st century stoner rock, but unabashedly take on the original sound as a retro ethic. It works well for Vinum Sabbatum, who one could probably concoct in a petri dish by melding the methods and influences of Witchcraft and their countrymen in Reverend Bizarre, but probably have the record collection to back up their aesthetic. That inevitably plays into their favor, as does the analog-sounding production and the patience with which they execute the material. Neither they nor Groan are “intense” sounding, at least not as the word might apply to heavy music, but there is something immediate in the overall atmosphere of the split.

I’ll admit this is my first encounter with Vinum Sabbatum on any level other than seeing their name around or checking out a song on YouTube at the suggestion of a friend. The Hyvinkää single-guitar five-piece of vocalist Janne Salo, guitarist Juha Köykkä, bassist Mika Pajula, drummer Marko Jylhä-ollila and organist Tomi Korpela rely heavily on the contributions of the latter to carry across their material – another factor that contrasts with Groan in the context of this split – but Salo’s vocals as well do an excellent job of bringing to mind classic rock melodicism. Atomic Rooster comparisons have been heaved in their direction, and I’d agree with that; there is something sub-progressive in Vinum Sabbatum’s sound that may rear its head on future releases or come out further on the Songs From the Convent than it does even on “Disillusioned Pilgrims” here. That song accounts for 10:45 of Vinum Sabbatum’s 15:28, and it has a breadth to justify the length. I don’t know what the recording situation was, if it was tracked for their album and not used or put to tape before or after, but if the band wound up putting it on something else in the future, I would neither be surprised nor begrudge them the choice. Where a lot of retro-minded heavy rock keys in on the simpler aspects of the “early ‘70s sound,” Vinum Sabbatum remind that there were bands even then pushing the boundaries of rock and roll and blues arrangements, incorporating strings and folkish interludes. “Sinister Sister” has more shuffle to it than the slower “Disillusioned Pilgrims,” but both display potential for a complex take on familiar retro elements. The natural, live-in-studio vibe of both tracks bodes well enough on its own.

And while it might seem like an odd fit for a split CD with Groan – even on vinyl there would be a natural divide in the time it takes to flip the record that there isn’t as the tracks proceed one to the next on the CD – if you approach it thinking of the split as a sampling of two bands rather than something meant to be a wholly cohesive collaboration, it shouldn’t cause a second thought. Plus, both Groan and Vinum Sabbatum display a clear love for the tenets of heaviness, and if nothing else, it’s a reminder how vast and pervasive the reach of Black Sabbath’s influence through the years has been. At 21 minutes, the split is a quick shot of a release, but a clear case of quality over quantity all the same, and fans from across the spectrum of heavy rock should be able to find something to enjoy in that time. As much as it speaks to the potential of both bands, it’s also a little sad that Groan won’t put out any more music with this lineup; their potential cut short by the lineup changes that hopefully won’t hold Wainwright and Jones back as they take whatever their next step might be. For Vinum Sabbatum, the forest walk they sample at the beginning of “Disillusioned Pilgrims” is one I want to take. They definitely warrant further investigation for those who, like myself, are hearing them for the first time here.

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