Friday, October 11, 2013

Woodwall - WoodEmpire (2013)

A rhetorical question: can an album give you exactly what you expected, and still be great? Has our musical pallet become so refined that we have to hear groundbreaking elements on each and every album just to enjoy them? You can speak for yourself, of course. But somehow, bands like Woodwall are speaking for all of us. We've heard stoner metal and doom, psychedelic metal and post; not every band can spark a change in those genres. But doing those things well, and really well at that, is just as impressive as changing the way we hear them. This Italian four piece are doing just that, taking their hazy sound on the road with a new album that is both the same old thing, and the same new thing in one. They are the personification of your favorite bar, clouded with the smoke of a thousand cigarettes, yet every puff is greeted by a breath of fresh air behind it. On this album, simply titled "WoodEmpire," they don't break new ground or tread too heavily on old ground, but tip toe through all the things that make these varying metal styles great. And the result won't surprise you; or maybe it will.

While it isn't a fast and furious start to the album, the smokey undertones that coat the opening to the title track, "WoodEmpire," are no mistake. They are hazy and clouded by design, something that quickly becomes the common thread in the album. Each crunching groove, furnished by guitarist Matteo Signanini, travels through a wall of pure distortion to reach it's intended goal. For his part, he not only delivers the central melodies, but his raspy, distant voice ties those pieces together. While it seems, at times, to be chaotic and unfocused, it is quite the opposite. It may meander in certain passages, as it does around the seven minute mark, but it always makes its way back to the mainline. At this stage, it is the shifting between songs that brings it back to Earth, as "Locrian" makes oddly great use of the keyboard element. By adding that slightly spacey sound just behind the guitars and bass, it gives great depth of sound to the mix, completed by a crisp drum sound at the hands and feet of Pietro Groppi. This is a far more driving track than the last, uptempo and pounding. It clearly suits the band well, as they are at their best here. Signanini's voice takes on an airy nature, one that is as melodic as it is exacerbating. But it is "King Stuste" that will leave the biggest impression, a headbobber's dream come true. The short three minute burst has all the pieces in the right places, leading to a maniacal stomp that only a musical prude could resist. A guitar lead like this one could unite enemies and friends under one banner.

The unsung hero of the stoner genre, and most musical styles, is the bass player. But Massimo Cornali's impact can be heard loud and clear throughout the album, adding his personal touch to the opening of "Red Toad." By nailing down the low end, in combination with Groppi, he makes a three minute instrumental all the more dynamic. This leaves the ultimate sound of the album, the way it sticks in your mind afterwards, to the wild card; synth master Paolo Cipolla might not have the biggest role, but his contributions are as important as any. The light touches he places so carefully throughout the album are crucial, if not completely necessary. But his command on the towering "Walden" is utterly essential. This track, more than any other on the album, speakers well beyond it's run time. The airy atmospherics, musically and vocally, are perfected here, and the band shifts their sound to a completely new level. For some, it may be hard to believe you've been listening to the same band as before; the change is a big one. It speaks to their ability to grow within the confines of an album, and each member has a hand in that. Signanini gives his best performance on both guitar and vocal, and drummer Groppi is as crisp as possible. The only failure here is that the track has to end. Back to their crushing riffs and boisterous drums, the band ends on a high note, "Holocene/Cambrian," though not as high as the note it began on. It's a more melodic take on sludge, confident and bottom heavy as it is. This is a track meant to be heard live, igniting a mosh pit and a crowd of hands in the air.

Let's revisit that not so rhetorical question; can an album give you exactly what you expected, and still be great? There are a million different answers you could give, and none of them would really affect the way you view this album. Woodwall are doing things you'll recognize, at a skill level that makes them sound as good as the first time you heard them. It's a victory that should be celebrated for it's quality, rather than whether it's shiny and new. Because even with the wear and tear on the sludge and stoner genres, there is still a lot of mileage left on those tires. More than that, though, is the notion that when you are good at something, old or new, you can make it work for you. Woodwall are doing exactly that, to a degree that should confound you. The beats are punchy, the rhythms are tight, and the vocals are a snug fit. If you're willing to take a step back and appreciate something for what it is, "WoodEmpire" is an album you'll go back to again and again. If you've evolved beyond that point where music has to be groundbreaking and innovative to give you any sort of satisfaction or enjoyment; it's going to be a lonely place to be.


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