Windhand, Soma: Stay Evergreen

I imagine that somewhere on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, a lone technician sits in a room with an impossible array of gauges, measuring tectonic pressure, general atmospheric conditions, etc., only to have the emergency lights kick on an unspeakable siren of chaos every time Windhand plugs in to rehearse. Call it “tone overload.” Our poor technician — who went to college for this, mind you, and is a skilled professional — gradually loses his or her mind, quits the job, and spends all remaining days wandering RVA, trying to find the source of that maddening rumble. Thus another existence destroyed by the ascendant dual-guitar five-piece, who made their debut on Relapse Records earlier this year with the Reflection of the Negative split with Richmond countrymen Cough, whose bass player, Parker Chandler, they also share. Windhand‘s full-length Relapse debut — their second album overall following a 2011 self-titled on Forcefield Records (streamed here) and a not-inconsiderable amount of touring — has been dubbed Soma, the drink of the gods. It’s a title Windhand share the most recent My Sleeping Karma LP, though the two bands have really nothing in common, as Windhand push forth low-end mud at a horrifying, lung-filling rate from Chandler‘s bass and the steady riff and lead interplay of guitarists Asechiah Bogdan and Garrett Morris, march to a wash of crash and stomp from drummer Ryan Wolfe (The Might Could, ex-Facedowninshit) and top with the ethereal vocals of Dorthia Cottrell, giving Soma a bleak, otherworldly sensibility to go along with its unbridled heft. If it’s the drink of the gods, the beverage is opaque. Clocking in at a full 75 minutes with six tracks and closing with the monster “Boleskine” that comprises just over half an hour on its own, Windhand‘s sophomore outing is dense even beyond the levels shows on the self-titled and fuller-sounding, bigger and more crushing. Early cuts “Orchard” and “Woodbine” establish the nod that the fivesome will carry through the next hour-plus, the opener in particular — also the shortest cut at 6:38 — harkening to some of the Electric Wizard influence that showed up last time out in the guitar work, but giving clear indication that Windhand‘s road time has helped them figure out who they are and who they want to be as a band.

To say Soma crushes doesn’t really do it full justice. It is impeccably mixed to maximize murk — a dense fog begins with “Orchard” and is consistent throughout. Cottrell‘s vocals and Wolfe‘s drums reside deep within the overbearing thrust of guitar and bass, lending the songs an even larger sound, and especially considering it was self-recorded and self-mixed (Morris also helmed the self-titled), the atmospheric bludgeon that Soma carries portrays Windhand as all the more cohesive in its styilstic take. They know what they’re doing, in other words. The riffs of “Orchard” proffer malevolent swirl and Cottrell sings through the churning progression, but there’s a structure to the song as well, a verse and a chorus trading off, as hard as they might be to discern initially, and the ringing feedback that caps the opener crashes directly into the similarly drugged-out “Woodbine.” Both the drums and the vocals seem more forward here, as though they’ve stepped up to meet the more insistent riff, and though by most standards it’s hardly a thrasher, in comparison to “Orchard” and the penultimate “Cassock” still to come, “Woodbine” moves at as quick a pace as Windhand show on Soma. Of course, the guitars and bass are so thick that even as it moves forward quickly, it still sounds slow. A memorable melody line through the vocals and guitars make “Woodbine” something of a landmark in terms of the album overall, but with a record that makes so plain its intent to swallow the listener whole and keep them for the duration, any landmark is only going to be so helpful. The idea is you lose yourself in it and are more subject to the overall impression than any particular standout, and that makes the album an even more satisfying front-to-back listen, though a “hook” for lack of a better word is certainly appreciated as well. Following a big slowdown as “Woodbine” hits the seven-minute mark and collapses to its finish, one gets no such mercies from the subsequent “Feral Bones,” which lets up some on the tempo and finds the vocals receding to deep under the tonequake, ghostly in echo but still definitely a presence. Peppered by regular crashes, “Feral Bones” is Windhand sounding the most their own as they have yet on the album. It doesn’t have the immediate familiarity of “Orchard,” but that’s also what makes it exciting. A striding lead takes hold near the halfway point, but the riff is maintained and soon returns to its prominent place, a last verse and chorus returning to round out the eight-minute track with more deceptive structuring.

“Evergreen” marks a well-placed departure from Windhand‘s bury-you-in-distortion methodology, switching to acoustic ambience that borders on minimalism in its strumming. No drums, no bass, no feedback-drenched leads, but “Evergreen” has a resonance anyway, its light strum reminding of the mood evoked by Down‘s “Jail” while remaining distinctly the band’s own thanks in no small part to Cottrell‘s capable handling of the morose melody. Perhaps most impressive of all, they keep it up for just under seven minutes, so that it’s not half a song or a moment to catch your breath before diving into the pit of riffs again with “Cassock,” but an essential piece of Soma and one of its most effective atmospheres. Slow moving and finishing with a repetition of the line “stay evergreen” that’s no less hypnotic than anything Windhand have offered to this point of the album, it’s a display of breadth they might not have been prepared to make on their self-titled, but which suits Soma perfectly where it occurs. What follows is nothing short of a mountain. Two songs remain and comprise nearly 45 minutes of Soma‘s runtime — more by almost half than the four tracks so far. “Cassock” and “Boleskine” are a record unto themselves — they easily could’ve been — with the first of them a tonal abyss unprecedented in Windhand‘s relatively short career and the second not only a summary of everything Soma has accomplished before it, but an expansion to new levels of sonic cohesion for the band. Feedback takes hold following the end of “Evergreen” and the lurch of “Cassock” is immediately potent. Wolfe builds up the drums, but even when the song launches — which it does with a riff worthy of Electric Wizard‘s “Drugula,” only slower — it crawls with a tension yet unheard on the LP. There’s a verse and a chorus, but the sway is maintained one into the other such that there’s no getting out of it. Bogdan and Morris are steering the progression, its changes driven by their guitars, but the band is united around the push and four minutes in, after the second chorus, an echoing solo takes hold to drive into the next movement of the piece overall, which is even more tidal in its crashes — almost a waltz, come to think of it — before the wailing chorus returns and a midpoint slowdown leads to a final verse and an even more grueling, noise-soaked rumble that builds over the course of the next five minutes to a contorted apex of Lovecraftian proportion, near unrecognizable by its end from the riffing that started it, though that could just be hearing loss.

In direct conversation with “Evergreen,” “Boleskine” spends its first two minutes and 40 seconds — less than a tenth of its seemingly insurmountable 30:30 runtime — dedicated to an acoustic intro, just the guitar, that seems to signal a tying together of the sundry threads thus far opened. In particular, that they’d go back to the acoustics as the opening of the final track on Soma underscores the symmetry and cohesiveness at the heart of the album, and of course once “Boleskine” crashes in, it hones a riff huge enough to capsize any mind bold enough to set sail on it. Drawn out soloing, ultra-weighted plod, and, eventually, Cottrell‘s commanding echoes — “Boleskine” is less about the swirl than was “Woodbine” or even “Feral Bones” and more about the excruciating, overwhelming mass of sound. Still, there’s a chorus. It’s slow, it’s covered in sludge, but it’s there. With each verse taking more than a minute to play out in slow motion, the band’s two-verses-two-chorus-then-change modus shown on earlier cuts is even harder to decipher on “Boleskine,” but the underlying method is the same, even if it takes a gloriously grueling eight minutes to get to the solo. Windhand work well at this pace, and Soma has felt like it’s leading toward “Boleskine”‘s considerable looming presence the whole time, but the closer isn’t just acting as payoff for the songs preceding, instead setting up Windhand not only as willing to challenge themselves but rising to take up that challenge head on with confidence and poise. Unsurprisingly, the solo takes its time — plenty of room to work with — but motion is maintained back toward the chorus and as they pass 10 minutes in, they slow again to step back into the verse, which is a gripping shift, but not a surprise given their by-now-established penchant for structure. The chorus takes hold again and crashes to a break at around 12:40, feedback taking hold in layers of sweet humming and bass rumble, the waves audible, and fade out to wind and soft, barely-there acoustic strumming of the riff. This turn is more unexpected, but after 15 minutes, when they kick back in at full-onslaught volume, it’s a clear sign that “Boleskine” is coming to its end. Over the next 10 minutes or so, Windhand ride that riff, top it with solos, punctuate it with slow drum fills from Wolfe, drench it in noise, and gradually, slowly, over the course of three minutes or so, fade it to its ending, leaving more sampled wind, clicking sounds and what sounds like footsteps to comprise Soma‘s last few moments.

Maybe that’s our technician wandering the earth aimlessly, with a psyche thoroughly demolished by Windhand‘s voluminous pummel. Either way, Soma ends in a suitably foreboding manner, considering the potential the band shows throughout for future works. They’re not toying with cult idolatry, and they’re growing out of their Electric Wizardry, and if songs like “Feral Bones,” “Evergreen” and “Boleskine” — really the whole record — are a sign of things to come from Windhand, there’s a real chance the Richmond outfit could leave a lasting mark on American doom. As their Relapse debut, Soma will no doubt be many listeners’ first experience with Windhand, and it’s got a palpable landmark feel. Helps that it’s of such staggering substance, but as someone who generally champions single-LP-length albums, the additional runtime of Soma is neither excess nor indulgence, but instead a necessary manifestation of Windhand‘s oppressive approach. One of the year’s best in doom, hands down.

Windhand, Soma (2013)

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Relapse Records

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