For those interested in quirky experimentation, restless progression, and a decided absence of preening pretension in their heavy music, the interconnected family of bands on the roster of German label Zeitgeister Music (including, in addition to Woburn House, Klabautamann, Valborg, Island, and Ekpyrosis) is an enchanting proposition. On Woburn House’s third album, Sleep Summer Storm, Zeitgeister’s gloomiest export revels in a velvet melancholy with an entrancing set of songs that don’t so much get under one’s skin as they form a resonant but inescapable aura that both blankets and suffocates.
Though recognizably the work of the same band, Sleep Summer Storm is a significant departure from previous Woburn House endeavors, and particularly from the sprawling and largely mellow atmospherics of its immediate predecessor, Monstrous Manoeuvres in the Mushroom Maze. The songwriting is much more compact, and the almost sludgy / post-metal / whatever dynamics have been replaced with midpaced doom strolling highlighted (or is that lowlighted?) by a nearly (but not quite) tongue-in-cheek vocal performance that wallows gleefully in unselfconscious angst. One could almost argue that the record is equal parts goth and grunge, though it sounds nothing like a goth or grunge record. Think of a distinctively Zeitgeister take on Alice in Chains by way of Type O Negative and you’re maybe a third of the way there.
The magic of Sleep Summer Storm, though considerable, is almost self-defeatingly understated. The songs dwell in rich open spaces, and most of them are strengthened throughout by a simple organ or keyboard drone. Opening tune “Willow” hits an unexpectedly intense climax with the straining invocation “I will live forever!” before fading back into clean guitar bends and soft drones, while “Rain Keeps Falling Down” is every bit as lugubrious as the title suggests, with a choir of rather mannered clean vocal laments that sound quite a bit like the much-missed Peter Steele pitched upward an octave or two. “Clash” is one of the album’s more striking songs, with its intro leading straight into one of the most strident riffs, while its midsection creates an eerie open space by layering laid-back but almost blasting drums over rich, chiming arpeggios, and deep moans intoning “You know, you know everything.”Sleep Summer Storm is a seriously depressed record, but in a way that seems to invite commiseration rather than isolation. A bottle of red wine poured between friends on a cold night, rather than a half-drained fifth of piss whiskey on the floor of a hotel bathroom.
More than anything else, however, this is an extremely deliberate album. Florian Toyka’s drumming is reserved and patient, always working to highlight rather than fill up open space, while Christian Kolf’s guitarwork is consistently meditative, trading fluidly and almost exclusively in basic arpeggios and chiming harmonics. The title track is the finest example of all of these strengths, with Kolf’s harmonics a shimmering delight and Toyka’s fleeting use of tambourine a perfect flourish. When penultimate tune “A Simple Man” switches into its heavy stomp mode halfway through, Woburn House sounds more like labelmates Valborg than anything else, but the Virus-playing-Celtic-Frost catharsis is a welcome and necessary bit of density in an otherwise spacious record.
If you’ve yet to check out any of the wildly underrated bands of the Zeitgeister family, this would be a perfect time to get your toes wet. Sleep Summer Storm drips with a rich sadness, and what it lacks in flash and variation it more than makes up for in a calmly but steadfastly pursued musical vision that doesn’t sound quite like anything else in heavy music right now. Winter is coming. You bring the glasses, and I’ll bring the cabernet; let’s see if we can’t make something of our sadness.