On its second album, the potent and diabolically toe-tapping The Pilgrimage, the Canadian duo Mares of Thrace occupies itself primarily with making a hostile racket. If public sentiment demands that we must get more specific than ‘hostile racket’, then it could also be said that Mares of Thrace plays a compellingly off-kilter blend of hardcore, noise rock, and slightly avant-garde doom. Most importantly, however, this Calgary-based two-piece seethes with vitriol, and deploys its hungry minimalism again and again to crippling maximum effect.
The opening track “Act I: David Glimpses Bathsheba” slithers into frame in a way that recalls fellow weirdo-doom duo Dark Castle, forcing its memorably twisty riff into an oddly-metered wobble. “The Pragmatist” highlights the disparate influences that animate The Pilgrimage, as it spends its time flitting between slow-motion pummeling and angular noise rock licks from guitarist/vocalist T. Lanz’s baritone guitar, while S. MacKichan’s drums throughout the dirge-like midsection are a patiently simmering and then gradually unhinging whirlwind.
The Pilgrimage’s sequencing is perfectly done, taunting the listener with brief moments of calm and separating the most similar pieces to maximize the contrast between the different parts of the band’s admittedly rather specific tonal palette. “Triple B” bisects the album with washes of harsh ambience and distant beats courtesy of producer Sanford Parker, while “The Gallwasp” opens with a quiet menace of distant riffing and bent notes. Still, by the time it staggers to its punishing conclusion, any breath that may have been caught is forcibly removed by what sounds like Converge interpreting Virus.
The band’s ruthless, trim-all-the-fat economy means that every swirling drum fill, every riff bludgeon, every excoriating lash of Lanz’s percussive vocal ferocity drills the listener right between the eyes. The snaky waltz-time of “Act II: Bathsheba’s Reply to David” makes for one of the finest songs on the album that, while disarming in its initial simplicity, adds in additional layers of Lanz’s guitar in such a graceful way that one is simultaneously ensnared by the insidiously catchy clean guitar melody and knocked insensate by the end-of-measure machine-gunning from MacKichan’s drums.
Like the best two-piece bands, Mares of Thrace has an uncanny knack for knowing just when to play in unison to maximize the impact of a particular riff or rhythmic figure (see the main figure and late-song blitzy tremolo of “The Perpetrator,” the lyrics to which also close with a wonderful kiss-off: “I don’t even want to know what you see when you close your eyes”) and when to splice apart into careening counterpoint or cross-meters (as on “Act III: A Curse Falls on the House of David,” where MacKichan’s storming drums provide a sturdy bedrock for Lanz’s odd-meter riffing).
The spindly but sometimes deeply resonant tone of Lanz’s baritone guitar is nicely on display in the sedate opening of “The Goat Thief,” which also showcases MacKichan’s flair for patient and perfectly spare drum flourishes. The serious riff that comes in a bit after the 2:00 mark swings like a motherfucker, and the parsimony of harrowing imagery in Lanz’s lyrics is a bit reminiscent of fellow Canadian noise-manglers KEN Mode (for whom Lanz has previously filled in on bass): “If what I crave is not what you possess, perhaps I’m fated to subsist on less… / But I will do whatever you expect, just flog my hide a deeper shade of red. / Pray blisters turn to calluses on the long, long road ahead.”
The Pilgrimage’s final two songs form one lengthy suite, with “The Three-Legged Courtesan…” finding a calm center from which to launch the final assault. Closing track “…and the Bird Surgeon” takes a bit too much time to really kick into high gear, but when it does, it shows the Mares’ communication at its most fluid, each highlighting the other’s strengths by laying back here, then crashing back into furious unison there. Once that long snare roll rattles in around the 6:00 mark, the world swoons and whimpers for one last ripping ride through the song’s final riff, punctuated with glorious, squealing feedback; teeth are set properly on edge, the mind rests easy. Mares of Thrace makes noise; more with less, and twice as hard. All is well.