Goatsnake, Black Age Blues: Crossing the River

goatsnake black age blues

The prospect of a new Goatsnake full-length has loomed large over heavy rock since the widely-influential four-piece got back together half a decade ago for their first reunion show at Roadburn 2010. Their two albums, 1999’s Goatsnake I and 2000’s Flower of Disease have cast a wide shadow over the riffery that emerged in their wake, the soulful vocals of Pete Stahl (earthlings?) a blueprint that few since have been able to follow and the contributions of guitarist Greg Anderson in the years that followed widely varied through his output with SunnO))) and at the helm of Southern Lord Recordings, which has helped shape underground tastes for well over the last decade. Fifteen years after the release of their last album, 11 since the Trampled Under Hoof EP surfaced, Stahl, Anderson, drummer Greg Rogers (The Obsessed) and newcomer bassist Scott Renner (Sourvein) return with Black Age Blues, on Southern Lord, and the impression they seem to be trying to give is they’re picking up right where they left off. In fact, they do. Opener “Another River to Cross” begins with the ending of Flower of Disease closer “The River” fading in as an intro before a bluesy acoustic guitar line introduces the nodding central figure that, when Stahl and backing vocalists Dem Preacher’s DaughtersWendy Moten, Gale Mayes and Andrea Merrit — hit into the chorus with gospel fervor, will serve as one of the album’s defining and course-setting moments. In four words? Heavy, blues, soul, riffs. Rogers and Renner provide the heavy, Anderson has the riffs, Stahl is the soul and the entire rolling nine-track/47-minute span is blue as blue gets. It seems like an easy enough formula to work with, but if that’s the case then why the hell have Goatsnake endured for 15 years without a record while so many others have come and gone?

No question Black Age Blues became one of 2015’s most anticipated releases immediately upon its announcement. Hell, even before then. And sure enough, it carries its “event” spirit into the material itself, moving from “Another River to Cross” into a one-two punch of the ultra-catchy “Elevated Man,” as clarion a hook as one could ask, though the harmonica sounds somewhat shoehorned in where a guitar solo might otherwise be, and the so-stuck-in-your-head-it’s-almost-obnoxious “Coffee and Whiskey,” the latter preceded by a recorded goof-around with Stahl singing the chorus, reminiscent of any number of studio-captured off-the-cuff moments that wound up on blues records. It’s a righteous, stunning opening salvo, and while Anderson‘s tone is invariably cleaner than it was a decade and a half ago, the method and the heft are retained via the Nick Raskulinecz production (yes, he also produced Flower of Disease, for those who’d note the continuity), and there’s still plenty of weight being thrown around behind Stahl, who’s forward in the mix at first on “Another River to Cross” but seems to step back over the next couple tracks before the title cut offers a shift away from the sub-five-minute straightforward rollers and into a classic upbeat stoner shuffle that moves in its second half to bigger riffing via a well-timed slowdown that deconstructs as the foursome shove it toward its 6:19 finish. Obviously it’s meant to be broken into halves for vinyl sides, but if one takes Black Age Blues in thirds — three sets of three tracks — it provides a fascinating sprawl as well, between its hook-laden opening trio, the middle third which branches out and the final third to tie it all together. “House of the Moon,” which follows “Black Age Blues,” is the centerpiece of the tracklist and also toys some with back and forth pacing swaps, but also brings back Dem Preacher’s Daughters for a welcome return and rightly brings them forward alongside Stahl, who makes his way to the final chorus with the lines, “We will shine on/Third time’s a charm.” And so it might just be. The revival atmosphere as the backing vocals refrain “shine on” is as pervasive on “House of the Moon” as it is anywhere on the album, but Goatsnake haven’t hit their apex yet, and it’s not where one would think.

goatsnake (Photo by Chris Lundry)

Hard to imagine “Jimi’s Gone” being about anyone other than Hendrix, with the opening lyric “Guitar-slinging gypsy,” and so on, but it’s the boogie front and center and thick, so they’re not falling into the trap of aping an artist’s sound while paying them tribute, though Stahl does layer in a bit of call and response with some Hendrixian “hey man” and “yeah man” before Dem Preacher’s Daughters announce the move into the song’s midsection with choral whoa-ing, leading to a torn out guitar solo and eventually back to the verse and chorus, some more harmonica tossed in — a bit more naturally this time — for good measure as the track rounds out leading to the tense thudding that starts the doomly “Graves,” which lurches like the best of classic The Obsessed but is overshadowed immediately by “Grandpa Jones,” the high point of the album, bringing together the infectiousness of the opening trio, the roll of the title-track and the church-hat testimony of “House of the Moon” — essentially pulling together all the righteous elements spread throughout into one huge four-and-a-half-minute stretch — Stahl and Dem Preacher’s Daughters hitting their best meld over Rogers and Renner‘s finest swing and Anderson‘s riff at the core of the whole thing. It is fucking beautiful, and with all due respect to “Slippin’ the Stealth,” “IV,” “Easy Greasy” and other high points from their first two records, it might be the best song they’ve ever written. The chorus of “You can’t decide what to do with your life/Grandpa Jones/Break it down” is perfectly arranged, the effect is heavy bliss, and it’s on “Grandpa Jones” that the listener really gets the sense of the blues record that Goatsnake have made here and how rather than trying to recapture their sound as it was, they’ve let it become this new and exciting beast while still retaining its most pivotal vibe. A call and response after the second chorus meets with complementary slams from Rogers and they finish with a turn into a particularly Sabbathian finish that’s as much about the fun they’re having as the heft they’re conjuring while doing so. That leaves “A Killing Blues” to close out, the momentum carrying from the end of “Grandpa Jones” to the beginning of the 7:35 finale, also the longest inclusion here. An open, nodding groove pervades the early going, but “A Killing Blues” is more about the jam that takes hold just past the three-minute mark, which starts with a quiet boogie as the foundation for the last build, falsetto repetitions of the title line ringing out over plotted, siren-style guitar lead and cymbal crash, a final rumble holding sway for a time until the rains start in and lead the album out.

In a way, the cover tells the whole story: Clouds of doom hang heavy over an old church in a sparse landscape and the air itself seems to be tinted blue, maybe with twilight or maybe just the darkness of the storm coming. One can’t help but wonder if that church might also be used as a schoolhouse, since that’s basically where Goatsnake are taking the entire genre of heavy rock and roll with their return full-length. Again, on paper the patterns are simple, but what the band does with them is nothing short of breathtaking, even aside from the simple appeal the album carries with it for fans through the simple fact of its existence. Sounds like hyperbole, but the blessings Black Age Blues bestows are not to be undervalued either for their heaviness or the individual presence at work behind them, and five years after their first reunion set, 15 years after their last album, Goatsnake may be the most vital they’ve ever been. Recommended.

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2 Responses to “Goatsnake, Black Age Blues: Crossing the River”

  1. Ryno says:

    Certainly one of my most eagerly anticipated albums of the last few years. I’ve worn out the old bandcamp with Elevated Man and Black Age Blues, listening like a kid, over and over again.

    Great fuckin review, again. Can’t wait to hear the whole thing…in thirds.

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