“Dickheadedism is humankind’s greatest vulnerability.” ~ Alexander the Great
Pretty sure it was Big Al who said that, but it might’ve been someone equally as great or even GREATER. Point being, everyone has the capacity for dickheadedism; it’s part of human nature. Acknowledging this truth is key, but even more crucial in terms of transcendence is recognizing when you’re at fault and making appropriate restitution.
With that in mind, I once had an abiding commitment to giving the stink-eye to essentially every band with four or more words in their name. At the time, my reasoning seemed sound: Metalcore makes my skin crawl, so skirting groups with names like Between the Buried and Me or Bullet for My Valentine was half the battle. Plus, there was a time when I didn’t get along particularly well with flagrantly pretentious indie rock, so waving an album under my nose from someone like …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead had the potential to send me up a tree for a solid week.
Disclosure #2, the PR email for these lengthily-monikered Seattleites refered to them as “doomgaze.” Hackles raised. Hackles oh-so raised.
Then I thought to myself, “Hey, you handsome devil, don’t be a dickhead. The world is a rich tapestry full of wonder and revelation.” So I hit play, and lo-and-behold, not only was I pleasantly surprised, I was knee-deep in lush contentment after obsessively spinning this thing for the better part of an entire afternoon.
So, what is He Whose Ox is Gored? I suppose the easiest explanation would be “progressive sludge.” Like other bands of their ilk, the weight is often shouldered via the intense mingling of bassist Mike Sparks and drummer John O’Connell, both of whom remain busy as burly beavs throughout these 51 minutes, even when a number of the stretches emphasize a predominately quiet/drifty mood. Plus, the tandem vocal delivery of guitarist Brian McClelland and keyboardist Lisa Mungo emphasizes the “shouty” style that normally reigns within the sludge off-shoot. In the end, there’s probably more than a few dinosaur-aged peers of mine who’d be quick to affix some sort of “hipster” tag to the band, which is fine, but many of these associates seem to have conveniently forgotten the fact that bands such as this have always skated along the outskirts of metal, and with an equal share of success. In the 90s, it was Amphetamine Reptile acts such as The Melvins, Killdozer and The Jesus Lizard that confused and charmed more than a few metal lords, and while not nearly as noisy/punky as much of that old Am-Rep roster, HWOiG bends the rules of heavy and strides metal’s periphery in a comparable manner.
Anyway, most humans can’t sleep at night without being able to put everything into a neat ‘n’ tidy category, which is also fine, but what’s most important is the fact that The Camel, The Lion, The Child represents the sort of record that takes a decidedly overworked off-shoot and puts an invigorating spin on the formula.
Jump back to 1991’s Grindcrusher tour when a much younger version of me snickered while watching Nocturnus try to convince a crowd that keys belonged in extreme metal and whisper in my ear “there will be a record in 2015 responsible for bowling you over based on the keyboards alone,” and I would’ve thanked you to walk away from me immediately. I love it when a plan comes together.
Lisa Mungo’s keyboards add an absolutely beautiful, sweeping, ethereal, sometimes tragic/sometimes inspiriting element to The Camel, The Lion, The Child – likely the most engaging example of a keyboard’s essentiality on a heavy record that I’ve heard in years. Take a tune like “Omega,” for example. Stripped of the keys, it’s a satisfyingly sludgy cut built on the backbone of the previously mentioned weighty drum & bass pairing, interspersed with bits of notably pleasant, melodic guitar work. Quite nice. But toss those exquisitely celestial keyboards into the mix and suddenly the whole shootin’ match lifts the listener into the stratosphere.
Camel, The Lion, The Child by He Whose Ox Is Gored&lt;/a&gt;
Similarly, “Cairo” drops a dense, megaton bomb of a riff at 2:20, and despite mixing in an appropriate amount of quiet/crescendo/crush/repeat to make it satisfying on its own, things are pushed over the top thanks to the equally heavy keys that add the perfect allotment of looming, booming gravity to the overall picture. The ridiculously menacing keys around the 3:50 mark: More of this in heavy music, please.
But as much as I dig the overall denseness of this album, the prettier moments, which are plentiful, are equally as gratifying, if not more so. Track three, “Crusade,” comes out of the gate with a notion of obscene heaviness, but it quickly switches gears at the 30-second mark to open up a mid-point of the record that’s stacked to the rafters with moody epic-ness, delicate melancholy (“Zelatype”), and an absolutely classic maudlin heartbreaker in “Alpha” that gives Lisa Mungo a chance to let the softer side of her voice shine. Overall, the quiet and the loud is superbly balanced, and generally within each song.
Obviously, it’s quite rewarding when an album you expect to crush you crushes you, but a very unique and durable level of contentment is realized when you’re lucky enough to get rolled by something that’s unexpected or that falls outside your conventional wheelhouse. Call them whatever you like – sludge, prog, post, -gaze, hipster or any combination of it all – He Whose Ox is Gored is a band that delivers big in terms of thorough emotional indulgence. And while the keys represent the added moody, sweeping, celestial element that serves to set the band apart from (and above) their peers, it’s the manner in which the entire machine seamlessly works together that ultimately makes The Camel, The Lion, The Child such a rewarding record. Put simply, these guys understand the significance of an intense ebb and flow, and that clearly makes for beautiful, engaging music.