Devil to Pay, Fate is Your Muse: Train Running through the Ether

The fourth album from Indianapolis-based rockers Devil to Pay and their first for Ripple Music, Fate is Your Muse is a solid collection of heavy rock songs that, if you want to take it on that level and move on, you probably can. That is, given a superficial listen, its 12 tracks and 49 minutes will probably strike one or two lasting chords with the memorable hooks of “Ten Lizardmen and One Pocketknife” or “Black Black Heart,” but where Fate is Your Muse – the four-piece’s first album since 2009’s Heavily Ever After – really makes its impression felt is in the repeat listens. Production is consistent throughout, and some fluctuations in mood are immediately detectible – the slower, darker “Yes Master” running headfirst into “Already Dead” on the CD version, for example – but the depth of Devil to Pay’s songwriting reveals itself more each time through. I’d call Fate is Your Muse a grower but for the fact that the first impression it makes is also a good one – so it’s not as though one goes from not liking it to enjoyment, just that even for one converted to the band’s brand of straightforward, heavy, riff-based rock, multiple visits pay dividends. Broken into two sides even on the CD, which adds the tracks “This Train Won’t Stop” (curious that wouldn’t also be on the vinyl since they used it on a precursor 7” release and made a video for it, but I guess there’s only so much room) and “Tie One On” (also on that 7”) the album begins with a rush in “Prepare to Die,” the first lyrics from guitarist/vocalist Steve Janiak, “Born to work and bred to lose/The legions of the melancholy fools,” summing up a good portion of the album’s perspective. There’s a workmanlike aspect to their riffing throughout, perhaps best exemplified on mid-paced material like “Wearin’ You Down,” “The Naked Truth” and “Already Dead,” but really palpable everywhere, and the recording itself  offers little by way of flash or circumstance, and yet Janiak, fellow guitarist Rob Hough, bassist Matt Stokes and drummer Chad Profigle have a well of traditional doom they draw on for slower, longer cuts like the aforementioned “Yes Master” or side B’s sparse finale, “Beyond the Ether,” even veering into progressive heavy riffing à la Tool on “Black Black Heart” – also arguably the record’s most soulful vocal performance, seeming to nod in the direction of Devil to Pay’s Midwestern compatriots in Lo-Pan.

Stylistically, most of what comprises Fate is Your Muse could be found on Heavily Ever After or to some extent its two predecessors in Devil to Pay’s catalog – 2006’s Cash is King or 2004’s Thirty Pieces of Silver debut – but the four years since the last album hit have found Devil to Pay a more mature act. Janiak’s vocals are at their most confident yet. He carries the choruses on Fate is Your Muse’s strong opening trio of tracks in “Prepare to Die,” “Wearin’ You Down” and the D&D opus “Ten Lizardmen and One Pocketknife” with seeming ease and smooth layering, veering into self-harmony on the second cut while leaving space for the more lighthearted sci-fi narrative on the third, a full-sounding album highlight with a thick shuffle riff and driving drum fills from Profigle. The rest of the band has stepped up performance-wise as well, and though the record is very much a collection of songs rather than one whole piece broken into parts, the persistent quality of their craft within the structures they utilize gives a more than solid flow from one track to the next, as “Ten Lizardmen and One Pocketknife” leads to the guitars introducing “Yes Master”’s near-seven-minute sprawl, underscored by Stokes’ bass as the plod gets underway punctuated by Profigle’s tom work. There are a few standout lyrics, but the last is perhaps the most resonant reminder: “The world descends depending on the frequency you send.” Maybe a bit of a takeoff on “And in the end the love you make is equal to the love you take” – it wouldn’t be the only Beatles lyrical reference; see also “This bird has flown” on “Wearin’ You Down” – but it works in the context of the song, and Janiak’s vocals recall Jerry Cantrell’s early ‘90s heyday without swiping Layne Staley’s “heyyy” mouth positioning. The subsequent “Already Dead” acts somewhat ironically as a return to the straightforward, heavy rocking side of the band’s sound, not coming near to the faster pacing of “This Train Won’t Stop,” but finding perfect positioning for its start-stop central riff between the morose “Yes Master” and side A’s closer and also delivering the title line atop cowbell and throwing a fitting bit of goth drama into the foreboding “Dead…” that ends the chorus.

Locomotive enough to justify the title in its guitar line and topped with call-and-response vocals that remind of C.O.C.’s Deliverance era, “This Train Won’t Stop” was written in response to those who seemed convinced the world was going to end in 2012, and with the linear listen a CD or digital copy of the album provides, it mounts Devil to Pay’s momentum moving into the second half of the record, a 4:40 flash of energy that the subsequent “Savonarola” continues both the musical push and lyrical cynicism, making a chorus of the lines “Rationalize/You’ll find a way” while Stokes’ bass holds rumbling notes beneath. A chugging sub-gallop in the bridge acts to pave the way into “Black Black Heart,” the off-time cerebral feel of which starts immediately following an inhale/exhale and only builds throughout. Together with “Yes Master” and “Beyond the Ether” still to come, “Black Black Heart” is one of only three tracks to top five minutes on Fate is Your Muse, and so a standout immediately for that, but moreover, its vibe is different from everything else on the album, the riff more complex and the move into the song’s more open second half jarring but still effective. Janiak’s vocals again do a lot of the work in conveying the emotion the music is portraying, but even on their own, his and Hough’s guitars are plenty evocative as they move into the quiet break, loud response, and quiet outro, the song leaving on a downer clearly on purpose to setup the move into “The Naked Truth,” the start-stop of which echoes some of “Already Dead”’s revivalist methodology. At 2:31, “The Naked Truth” is stark indeed, structurally without flourish or ceremony as it builds motoring momentum through two verses and the repeating line “Uplift yourself,” finding room for a quick, plotting-seeming lead before capping with another run through the semi-chorus and shifting into “Mass Psychosis,” which bridges some of the progressive gap between “Black Black Heart” and the rest of Fate is Your Muse without really aligning itself one way or another.

On the vinyl, I don’t doubt that “Mass Psychosis” contributes to an overall moodier feel as it shifts into “Beyond the Ether,” but with the CD, “Tie One On” interrupts as only a boozer can, elbowing its shuffle between “Mass Psychosis” and the closer rudely but in such a way as to provide one last peak before the final valley. There’s a moment of silence following the cold ending of “Tie One On” as “Beyond the Ether” fades up its riff, a classically doomed march that wouldn’t be out of place on an Apostle of Solitude album (Janiak splits his time on guitar/vocals with that band), but even with the heavy rocking “Tie One On” before it, it’s not long before “Beyond the Ether” has consumed the spirit and given a clear signal that Devil to Pay are ending dark. Some quick bluesy soloing and fuller riffing pick up the pace a little bit, but the band has almost completely cast off the momentum they had in the midsection of the album and somewhat brought back with “Tie One On” – this would be an issue if the track didn’t work so well. Stokes backs Janiak’s vocals while the guitars take a break in the last verse only to return with more breadth, but even that change isn’t trying to be an apex or payoff for the album as a whole or anything. Ending with a dirge might seem a curious choice for a band who began with such a raucous three cuts, but it’s just one more example of the intricacy that reveals itself with multiple exposures. Fate is Your Muse isn’t hiding its depth by any means – it’s all right there on the platter, whichever format you prefer – it’s just not making a show of it. I wouldn’t call it humble, but the cynicism and self-awareness in the lyrics seems to have had a role in the presentation of the record as well, so that what you get is a collection of high quality songs that seems not to want to pretend it’s anything more than that. Suits me. Even at its headiest moments – on “Black Black Heart” maybe, or “Yes Master” – the album stays true to this ethic, and Devil to Pay’s level of craft proves able to stand up to the band’s lack of pretense. You get what you get, and that winds up being just what’s needed.

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