UK Special — Alunah, White Hoarhound: Call of the Forest

Alunah’s rise has been marked and impressive these last several years. The four-piece hail from Birmingham – a pretty good place to be from if you’re into the heavy – and their latest offering is White Hoarhound. The album is their debut for new label PsycheDOOMelic and their second full-length overall behind 2010’s impressive Call of Avernus debut (review here), a split with Queen Elephantine (review here) in 2009 and 2008’s preceding Fall to Earth EP, and the central difference between it and everything the band has done to this point is a clarity of mindset. With White Hoarhound’s seven tracks/47 minutes, what’s most apparent in listening is that Alunah have a much clearer idea than they’ve ever had before of who and what they are as a band. The guitars of Sophie Day and Dave Day are thick, viscous and forward in the mix alongside Gaz Imber’s bass, and Jake Mason’s drums beat out straightforward motion in line with the riffs. They are rarely showy as a band, but these songs deliver quality heaviness, a few standout choruses, and a solidified aesthetic rooted in pagan-style nature-worshiping lyrics. Sophie’s vocals are a defining element, and where in the past I’ve likened her voice to Lori S., that’s never been less true than it is on White Hoarhound. Some similarities remain, but as Sophie begins to come into her own as a singer, she necessarily leaves that and other such influences behind her. One still gets the sense in listening to their second album that Alunah are continuing to develop as a unit, but there are plenty of instances throughout the sophomore LP that show that potential beginning to pay off, both in terms of songwriting, as on the title-cut, and in terms of performance, as on the harmonized acoustic guitar/organ penultimate track, “Oak Ritual I.” The production of Greg Chandler (who also helmed Call of Avernus) and a mixing/mastering job from the increasingly ubiquitous Tony Reed finds the album moody but crisp, and with a darker atmosphere around them than last time out, the doom in Alunah’s sound has never come across better than it does here.

As on the debut, that doom comes tempered with a fuzz rock mentality that ties these tracks closely to the riffs on which they’re founded. Alunah would hardly be the first band to be driven by the progressions of their guitars, but it sets up a singularity of approach that plays out across much of White Hoarhound. I don’t necessarily think it’s a detriment to the album, however, since the mood is varied along the way and the unit don’t tie themselves to just one structure. That is, not every verse sounds the same, not every riff sounds the same, not every song winds up in the same place. So while it’s the riffs being followed, the destination changes. They touch on psychedelia here and there, as in the very intro of the album on opener “Demeter’s Grief,” but on the whole, it’s a doomier kind of sound than last time out, thicker, with Gaz’s bass right up front playing off Sophie and Dave’s guitars. No complaints there. The grooves are weighted but not drudging, and “Demeter’s Grief” does a solid job in setting up the listener for what’s to come throughout the album, shifting smoothly between a slower verse and more upbeat chorus, catchy and memorable with semi-mystical lyrics that serve as a distinguishing factor throughout the whole of White Hoarhound, including on the title-track, which follows and features the best of the album’s choruses. Sophie layers and backs herself on vocals, and the song’s musical bounce and vocal cadence comes across not unlike that of Mars Red Sky’s “Strong Reflection,” the heft in the guitars and bass once more not weighing the song down in the slightest. Alunah move into an effective start-stop groove in the second half, playing up the swagger for a brief break before cutting to a section of noise and skillfully bringing back the verse with a gong hit and revitalized purpose. Rightly, they end with the chorus, and shift directly into Mason’s drum intro for “Belial’s Fjord,” which at 8:03 is the longest track on the album, closer “Oak Ritual II” having a longer runtime but ending earlier.

The album’s midsection – “Belial’s Fjord,” “The Offering” and “The Chester Midsummer Watch Parade” – accounts for much of its substance, and by the time the solo kicks in three minutes into the first of those cuts, Alunah are well at home in a low end groove, Imber riding out the rhythm with Mason in anticipation of the song picking back up, which, of course, it does. Somewhat less immediate than either “White Hoarhound” or “Demeter’s Grief,” “Belial’s Fjord” nonetheless confirms the atmosphere of those tracks and the album as a while – Sophie introduces us to the fjord itself, repeating the line “Please let me drown” in the process. The only thing Ms. Day is in danger of drowning in is her own guitar tone, and fortunately, it doesn’t come to that. “Belial’s Fjord” builds to a spacious apex in an almost devious manner, the chorus being secondary until the last time through when you realize you know it by heart already, and the leadwork throughout – as prevalent here as anywhere on White Hoarhound – satisfies without ever delving into self-indulgent shred. For its first minute, “The Offering” seems to follow a similar course of ethereal doom, but the intro soon dissolves into a quirkier, off-time riff that Mason backs well, nestling into a smooth and straightforward half-time stomp. A more adventurous drummer might have tried to keep pace with the guitars as they moved through, but Alunah aren’t about flash any way you cut it, so Mason plays it right in his ethic. At the same time, “The Offering” shows how Alunah are still growing as a unit. Not for anything in their performance, exactly, but just in how the track is constructed and how it stops and starts again after the intro, the former hardly a memory by the time they move into the chorus, fuller-toned – Imber’s fills are especially potent – and once again catchy in unrepentant fashion. Mason leads a bridge topped by a wah-heavy solo and they springboard back into the chorus, capping that and the song as a whole with more fuzzy soloing. Sneakily keeping the same reliance on a pop structure, “The Chester Midsummer Watch Parade” opens with creepy ambience and an even creepier bass and drum rhythm from Imber and Mason that highlights just how essential the two are to making this material work.

Doomed and sleepier in its verse, “The Chester Midsummer Watch Parade” veers into some psychedelics in its pre-chorus, which echoes into an oblivion created by its own tonal largesse before the chorus hook arrives to once again highlight the balance in Alunah’s sound between one side and the other. To call it stoner doom might give an impression undercutting some of the intricacies in the vocals and the guitars, but I still don’t think it would be wrong. There’s a burst of life in the solo and bridge of “The Chester Midsummer Watch Parade,” but the vibe overall is by far more languid than on “The Offering,” the band doing well to set the one next to the other and highlight the dynamic at play on White Hoarhound. The flourish of Hammond — a guest contribution from Reed — in “Oak Ritual I” does a lot to both enhance the acoustics and fill out the proceedings, the only other element of which is Sophie’s singing, capably harmonized. That proves to be plenty as the 2:32 intro/interlude cut gives way to closer “Oak Ritual II,” which uses at least some of the same lyrics but repurposes them over a heavier progression – the fuzz revived – that nonetheless has hints of melodic complexity under the dense weight of its riffage. Listening, I wish the vocal harmonies bled over from one track to the next, but Sophie strips her approach back down to where it rested for the vast majority of White Hoarhound, following the guitar with some variations of melody and tentative-seeming excursions of range. If they’re unassuming or humble, however, that only makes them consistent with the rest of what goes into Alunah’s tracks, which wind up a righteous play on genre as the quieter lead section of “Oak Ritual II” starts the build at 5:31 that will provide the final push of the record. They end with the apex, cutting to a bit of a ringout that feeds back and is gone by 7:10, and after the nine-minute mark, the organ returns for a ghostly minute-plus of atmosphere accompanied by echoing noise and sampled thunderstorm. As with Call of Avernus, Alunah chose a title-track (or perhaps it chose them; did I just blow your mind?) that features some of the album’s highlight moments, but there’s plenty in the rest of White Hoarhound that lives up to the promise the earlier cuts drive toward. Accordingly, the album itself succeeds because of how well the songs, “White Hoarhound” included, interact with each other and set up an overarching flow, no less fluid than any groove that emerges within them. Alunah remain a bright spot in the up and coming British heavy underground, and the growth prevalent here confirms they’re on the right course for developing their sound and style. Unpretentious heavy is always welcome by me.

Alunah on Bandcamp

PsycheDOOMelic Records

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