Black Willows, Haze: In the Grey

Self-released in a six-panel foldout digipak that includes a poster, the debut album from Swiss foursome Black Willows (who may or may not have added a The to the front of their name since) strikes an immediately curious impression. Haze reaches upwards of 70 minutes and finds its crux in sometimes-droning psychedelic repetitions, slowed down space rock and periodic bouts of riffnosis — which is all well and good, but between that and the Hubble Telescope imagery from whence the artwork comes, I’m left wondering about the black and white visuals. By the time Haze has started, past the buzzing noise of the two-minute title-track intro, it’s readily apparent that the band will be taking their time. Since usually this kind of thing comes coated in greens, yellows, reds and oranges, it’s something of a surprise Black Willows didn’t go total-spectrum in the layout. The greyscale gives Haze — which was recorded in the sunny clime of Austin, TX — an individual edge before you even press play.

Perhaps that’s the point — it’s what everyone else does, so they did the opposite — but either way, there’s a moody underpinning for the echoing vocals of “Doors of Perception” as a result, some Dead Meadow shoegaze meeting heavy psych jam payoffs in slowed down subspace. The dual guitars of Mélanie Renaud and (golly this name sounds familiar) Aleister Crowley move the songs forward by and large, giving the latter’s vocals plenty of room to echo out, but as “Neptune” takes hold with a more nodding thud, the rumble work of bassist Kevin Richard and particularly the languid punctuation of drummer Nicolas Monica are shown for the essential pieces they are. “Neptune” is the first of four songs in a row — followed by “Haiku,” “Black Magic” and “Apache” — that top eight minutes apiece, and though they vary in mood, with “Haiku” reminding in its instrumental stretches of some of the tension Elder created on their Dead Roots Stirring long-player while the more contemplative “Black Magic” touches on Easternisms in its drone and “Apache” delves into revival of the it’s-a-nod-scene-baby groove of “Neptune” en route to squibbly explorations and noisy climax, it remains a lot to take in one sitting.

Yet Haze doesn’t really work any other way. Nothing with a flow as consistent or as engaging as that which Black Willows concoct over the course of these songs is meant to be taken one song at a time. It would be sacrilege, and not the good kind. And yet, so sit and pick apart every move each song is making during a complete-album listen misses the point, which is to let yourself be taken by the aforementioned flow — they position it thusly, “…the user may experience anything from subtle changes in perception to overwhelming cognitive shifts” — and allow the songs to wash over a willing subconscious. So song-by-songing isn’t the thing, and what Haze really requires is a careful balance of consciousness and unconsciousness — but even more than that, it requires space to breathe and run its extended course. By the time you’ve made it past “Apache” to the slowed down, reverb-soaked riffing of “Velvet Diamond,” its verses open with just the vocals of Crowley, ambient guitar and bass and the steady beat from Monica holding it together, you’re either going to be lost in it or you’re not. I don’t know if resistance is futile, as per the old line from Star Trek, but it certainly dampens the listening experience of Black Willows‘ gone-wandering heavy jam mentality.

“Velvet Diamond” continues the laid-back exploratory feel as verses give way to repeat-repeat jamming that patiently enacts a build, but just when it seems like the track is going to hit its apex, it hits right into the intro of the following “Set Us Free,” essentially starting over from scratch. These ebbs and flows only really stand out if you’re paying (too) close attention, and after about two and a half-minutes, the guitars stand alone joined in a quick lead line announcing the arrival of the droning verse, some Om-style vibe pervading not so much in the vocals as in the riff itself, which again is kept directed by Monica‘s drumming, slow fills giving enough edge to the riffs that they almost seem to be in motion. Putting Haze over the top is the 14:37 closer “Dead Mantra,” basically an album unto itself with from-silence-to-chaos jumps and intertwining guitar lines that only add to the wash, again vaguely reminiscent of some of Elder‘s latter day progressions when it hits its loudest. It would almost have to make a fitting culmination for the resonant monolith preceding — being a resonant monolith on its own — but “Dead Mantra” indeed is that, also underscoring the need for a suitably willing engagement that one finds with the record as a whole. Pending their meeting with that, Black Willows should have no trouble implanting themselves in the cortex of the underground, remaining there for the duration and leaving a positive impression when it decides to move on to the next lobe.

Black Willows, Haze (2013)

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