Dwellers, Pagan Fruit: The Arms of Delirium

A guitar line echoes, swells, is met with a quick wash of cymbal, and almost before you realize it, Dwellers have eased you into the pulsing “Creature Comfort,” the opener of their second album for Small Stone, Pagan Fruit. The Salt Lake City, Utah, three-piece have refined the stylistic ideas put forth on their 2012 debut, Good Morning Harakiri (CD review here, vinyl review here), and the result is a molten nine tracks/48 minutes of graceful, patient, heavy psychedelic blues. Front to back, it is neither haphazard nor overly constructed feeling, guitarist/vocalist Joey Toscano (ex-Iota) leading the sway with the rhythm section of bassist Dave Jones and drummer Zach Hatsis (both also of SubRosa) helping to steer the material as much as ground it. Songs like the cello-infused “Spirit of the Staircase” drive into exploratory vibes, spaced out and ethereal, but there’s a melancholy at work underneath that, in combination with a more confident vocal and instrumental approach, gives Pagan Fruit a genuine sense of consciousness. It holds to these even in its most swaggering moments, say “Rare Eagle” on side A, “Devoured by Lions” or the penultimate “Waiting on Winter,” and finds its most vivid emotional ground in its moments of pleading, as on the rolling second cut, “Totem Crawler,” with its chorus, “Oh, my queen/To whom I crawl,” or the CD centerpiece “Son of Raven,” which begs, “Come home,” in repeated fashion. These songs are a far cry from any sort of toughguy mentality or dudely let’s-get-drunk-on-beer-and-write-songs-about-whiskey posturing, and ultimately it’s that sincere vibe paired with the memorable songwriting itself that makes Pagan Fruit such a satisfying, engaging experience.

It has its raucous stretches, and a steady flourish of organ from Jones and synth, vibraphone and Rhodes from Hatsis adds depth to the arrangements, and while its songs hit with no shortage of impact — recorded by Toscano‘s former Iota bandmate Andy Patterson, Hatsis‘ kick feels like it’s coming from inside your brain — Pagan Fruit is not a bombastic album. In pacing and execution it is patient and carefully done, a song like “Return to the Sky” finding its soul as much in the raindrop melody of its keys as in Toscano‘s lyrics. Guitar and bass tones are warm, perhaps most of all on the two longer cuts, “Rare Eagle” (7:10) and the closer “Call of the Hallowed Horn” (8:33). The first of the two, fourth of the total nine songs and likely the side A/B split, departs in its midsection to a psychedelic jam with subdued vocals over top, but picks up into insistent riffing, a space-rocking push emerging as organ, soloing and effects are layered in. They jam “Rare Eagle” to its finish, leading fluidly into the album-highlight “Son of Raven,” but “Call of the Hallowed Horn,” which brings in goth-rock singer-songwriter Raven Quinn for a guest vocal spot, reinterprets its chorus over its own sprawling, slow-rolling psych jam, bookending the song and album alike and showing Dwellers‘ care toward varying structures. Of course, by then, the band has done that for 40 minutes, so maybe the point is made, but they underline it well anyhow with the finale, further variety arriving earlier through elements like Toscano‘s harmonica on the swing-heavy “Devoured by Lions,” the steadily shifting key sounds or even just the changes of mood from song to song, all of which remains impeccably arranged and executed with a natural, organic feel, making non-traditional vibes and approaches sound immediately familiar.

Not only familiar, but wistful, and intricate, and — again — heavy. Pagan Fruit benefits from both tonal and emotional weight, and while the chorus, “Cannot deny/What I am under the sun/Cannot deny/My creature his comforts,” of “Creature Comfort” hints at some sleazy analogy, the song successfully toes that line in a manner of no less artistry than the labial cover of the album might indicate. Lady-voodoo as a theme derived from classic blues? Yeah, maybe, but Dwellers fit all this well into their approach, and “Creature Comfort” is consistent with the rest of the record sound-wise if not completely in line in lyrical agency. For initial listens, what’s important is to go into Dwellers‘ second offering not expecting a riotous, brash collection, but understanding that Pagan Fruit has movement and depth in kind, and that its appeal comes not just from its instrumental intricacy — though Jones‘ bassline in “Totem Crawler” is enough argument for that on its own — but from its overarching spirit, downtrodden but still exploratory. While they accomplish this, and while Pagan Fruit taken as a whole comes across as the realization of the aesthetic Good Morning Harakiri put forth, one of the most enjoyable aspects of it is how unsettled Dwellers still sound. They’re confident and firm in their approach, while also defining what that approach actually is. Add to that the fact that Pagan Fruit comes just two years after their first record — as opposed to that one, which came four after Iota‘s 2008 swansong Tales — and what you come out with is a portrait of an encouraging progression under way. The results here are encompassing and periodically brilliant, cohesive and stylized in such a way as to belong solely to Dwellers. If Good Morning Harakiri was the album that brought Toscano out of Iota‘s shadow, then Pagan Fruit is Dwellers as a complete unit demonstrating to listeners that they have something to offer distinct in heavy rock. It will be exciting to learn what they do with that for their third outing, but don’t take that to be an understatement of Pagan Fruit on its own merits. The moody songs of praise Dwellers present here are undeniably fit for worship. Also vinyl.

Dwellers, Pagan Fruit (2014)

Dwellers on Thee Facebooks

Pagan Fruit at Small Stone’s Bandcamp

Small Stone Records

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