Hollow Leg, Abysmal: Crying Havoc

Though in the minds of many listeners there’s no doubt that Southern sludge is an aesthetic with set associations. Bands playing or even dabbling in the style are hard-pressed to emerge without being saddled with the inevitable Eyehategod comparison, and to their credit, Floridian four-piece Hollow Leg work in a more nuanced approach than most. Their second full-length, Abysmal, finds them working within and beyond the usual stylistic constraints, here and there touching on Sourvein-style nod while offsetting that with Earthride‘s rolling stoner-doom groove. The riffs of guitarist/backing vocalist Brent Lynch are a driving force, as one might imagine, but Abysmal (released on Last Anthem Records) showcases a songwriting acumen that goes beyond focusing on any single member of the band and is most effective when Lynch, bassist Tom Crowther, drummer Tim Creter and vocalist Scott Angelacos are all pushing in the same direction. Moreover, with the strength of several landmark choruses behind it — namely those of “Blissful Nothing,” “Ride to Ruin,” “Lord Annihilation” and closer “Cry Havoc” — Abysmal also tests out the boundaries of melody. While Angelacos‘ vocals are largely unipolar in their throaty, shouting approach, Lynch provides suitable accompaniment and also works in some flourish on guitar, making the material across the album’s eight tracks/35 minutes that much more complex. What on first listen sounds like it might be “another sludge record” gradually emerges as a display of character that, while utilizing some familiar elements, ultimately shows Hollow Leg as having more to them than Take as Needed for Pain rehash and/or derivative antiestablishmentism.

At their core, Hollow Leg are riotously heavy. Recorded by Jeff McAlear at High Five Audio in Deland, FL, and mastered by Collin Jordan, the album’s mix leans toward the metallic, but stays true to a sludgy nature by not sacrificing tonal weight in the name of speed or showy play. That Hollow Leg would turn out to be crafters of memorable songs should be less of a surprise to those who caught the not so subtle hints on their 2010 full-length debut, Instinct — also recorded by McAlear  — but it’s a distinguishing factor on their second album and the growth they show proves demonstrative of their progress overall. Abysmal creeps to a start with the fade in of its title-track, a song that shows little of the breadth that comes across over time, but establishes several key factors in Hollow Leg‘s approach all the same, from the fluid rhythms proffered by Crowther and Creter, to the weighted chug of Lynch‘s guitar and vicious rasp from Angelacos at the forefront. Angelacos seems at first to be very much in the T-Roy Medlin spirit of screamers, and “Abysmal” suits that form, though deviations emerge both in the chorus layering and in his tradeoffs with Lynch, and as the slower, more subdued “8 Dead (in a Mobile Home)” takes hold, Hollow Leg immediately build on the straightforward thrust of the album’s beginning to toy with heavy/soft dynamics, the guitars adding melody at the end to hint at some more of what’s to come. Between the two songs, a good portion of Abysmal‘s course is set, but I’d argue that the most resonant hooks are still to come, and “Blissful Nothing” settles into an easy groove with a dually-layered vocal in the chorus, shout-along ready, essentially proving the argument.

The smoothness of transition continues into the shorter, instrumental “Pompeii,” which is marked out by lead guitar notes and a quieter atmosphere and which feeds directly into the subsequent “Ride to Ruin,” which opens with harmonized lead guitars and a section of grandiose crashes opening to a straight-up Earthride groove, ably executed, and one to which Hollow Leg add their own twist in a more intense chorus. A slowdown for the bridge seems likely to give way to a last chorus, but they stick to the more drawn-out pacing, nodding in the guitars at early Down while Angelacos tops with a last verse of Weedeater-esque throatrippers. They end “Ride to Ruin,” as they’d almost have to, with feedback, and though as Creter starts “The Dog” on drums I’m sent to the tracklisting to see if they’re about to cover Pentagram‘s “Forever My Queen,” but the song soon charts its own course in the most straight-ahead sludge groove since the opener, though a catchier chorus goes far in keeping Hollow Leg‘s personality in it, the lines “Citizens of the world/Leave me alone,” rounding out that chorus with suitable misanthropy discernible amid a wash of screams and heavy crash. Because most of Angelacos‘ screams have been higher register to this point, Hollow Leg have been able to avoid the trap of burl that a lot of Southern (and Southern-ish) metal seems to fall into, sounding more dudely than original and chestbeating instead of writing the best song possible. The subsequent “Lord Annihilation” walks that line as finely as any song on Abysmal, particularly in its chorus, but it winds up being the high point of the record as a whole perhaps just because of the added burl.

By that I mean Hollow Leg haven’t spent much time on the album to this point playing to caricature masculinity — usually it shows up in Southern metal/sludge as a Pantera influence, which is all but absent from Abysmal — and even though “Lord Annihilation” comes on as a definite bruiser, between its lead section and its ultra-catchy chorus, ably delivered in a lower register than most of the screams on the album, semi-clean but still mostly rhythmic, the effect isn’t to make it seem like the band are posturing late in the record so much as they’re writing a strong track and this was how it came out. They’re not giving up their established level of craft to sound like someone’s ridiculous notion of tough was 20 years ago, in other words. “Lord Annihilation,” as the penultimate cut on Abysmal, is a sound apex to an offering well keyed in the direction of individuality, but closing duties are given to “Cry Havoc,” which features both vocals in its chorus and isn’t as upbeat as its predecessor, but stands as similarly engaging anyway. Lynch takes another plotted solo, scales rising effectively to prominence after the vocals drop out to make room, and after a last run through the verse and chorus, Creter signals a change to a faster part on his snare and Hollow Leg take off with a thanks-for-coming bit of stonerly shuffle, churning and crashing to a finish right before the five-minute mark to let the album’s last 30 or so seconds be comprised of guitar noise before ending cold. Highs and lows emerge throughout, but most of all for those already converted to the ways of Southern sludgery, Hollow Leg‘s second offers much to make it worth taking on, and by avoiding some of the cliches within its genre while making use of other common tropes, Abysmal comes out that much more realized for the stylistic choices made.

Hollow Leg, Abysmal (2013)

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