If one band in “heavy metal” today has the potential for massive crossover appeal – and would likely find it in a just world – it is SubRosa. With all of the tweed-vest-wearing, old-timey-obsessed fluff dominating the indie scenes these days, a band with such a fascination with the past should be thriving. But once associated with the metal scene, always associated, and no matter how much SubRosa channels bluegrass and Americana, or how absolutely beautiful their music is, being connected to the outside will always haunt them.
Judging from the tones of More Constant Than the Gods, they may prefer things this way. The album, their third, seems to be embracing the heaviness, the darkness, and the ghostly values even more than the masterful No Help for the Mighty Ones. Their brand of deconstructed-Americana-crossed-with-doom-with-a-touch-of-punk-attitude has always been uniquely chilling, but here the heft is increased, and the Vitusian riffage – which is often riffier than in the past – pushed to more crushing levels via a thicker production.
In these ways, More Constant is much easier to call a metal album than No Help, but any inherent metalness is not at all what defines it. Rather, it is the sprawling melodies provided both via the voices of Sarah Pendleton and Rebecca Vernon and the intertwining violins, the production that twists these strings into a wail (the climax of opener “The Usher”), and the feeling that a simpler time has been resurrected and forced to look upon the desperation of today. SubRosa is the sound of overwhelming sorrow attempting but failing to hide a suppressed rage, and More Constant expresses that duality better than ever before.
This message permeates every ounce of the music, and perhaps no tune captures it all better than “Cosey Mo.” A tale and homage to a fugitive on the run – or maybe just a societal outcast in general – the song feels like SubRosa taking their sound into roots-blues territory, but only as a jumping-off point. Once that soaring, otherworldly chorus is delivered, it becomes clear that this isn’t just a band absorbing their influences, but projecting them in some way. Only unflinching dedication creates music in which every element not only feels completely crucial, but creates this feeling of new-but-not-newness, like some never-told story out of history. This dedication reaches even to the flute, piano, and hammered dulcimer that fill up the soft finale “No Safe Harbor.” The instrumentation is a fitting partner for what eventually reveal themselves to be the darkest, most despair-ridden lyrics on the album, showing again that heaviness isn’t always about the power in the amplifier, but the depth of the emotion.
And speaking of lyrics, no aspect of More Constant better displays the sorrow-meets-rage aspect than the words. Few bands can pen an individual line with the effectiveness that SubRosa can manage, and these lines are but single stokes in the entire canvas. The song that best exemplifies this wordsmithery – and how important it is within the total vibe – is “Fat of the Ram.” In the interest of not spoiling too much of a song crammed with great lines, I will provide merely one simple, gorgeous nugget:
“They are all gentlemen / they only kill by common consent.”
This line, coupled with the vocal delivery, seems like a linchpin of the entire album, even to a listener who is typically apathetic about the words (that would be me). The fact that this is a woman snidely delivering the word “gentlemen” is no small point either, and further hammers home the album’s underbelly of everything-is-hopeless punk. More Constant is filled with such moments of poignant cynicism, and it is a testament to the band’s power as a unit that such lines can seem as important at any point in the music—quiet or heavy-as-leviathan; layered or barren and simple.
With all of the enthralling mystique, SubRosa is not a band without its faults. Whether or not those faults are a problem is up to the individual, as certain defining aspects of their sound may be seen as cracks to some, and as virtues to others. For example, despite the band’s insane range of dynamic levels, they sometimes burst into new sections without much buildup (“Affliction” is slightly guilty of this). Granted, they did this on No Help as well, so it may be the kind of effect that takes months, not days, to appreciate, particularly when lined up with the lyrical shifts. Also, for as absolutely signature as the punk-tinged vocals can be, they occasionally go flat at key moments (during a momentum shifting transition in “Ghosts of a Dead Empire,” for example). However, all of this may be a matter of balancing what SubRosa does best. Their music is undeniably human, after all, and refining one aspect may cause others to feel less natural, diluting the whole in the process. These kinds of idiosyncrasies can be difficult to gauge, but it’s hard to imagine this band being more appealing without their imperfections. It does indeed make them seem human, and in turn more relatable.
So, imperfect or unrefined as they are, they remain far more appealing and mysterious than thousands of bands that try in vain to succeed only to end up ordinary. This is because, before even writing a note of a new album, SubRosa is a more interesting and unique entity, and because of this their music is infinitely inspiring. They also remain one of the great go-to examples when showing an outsider exactly what heavy metal can be. No one else is making these tones; no one else is exploring these landscapes; and no one else is forming such an emotional, complicated cross section of American music.
For that alone, they should be appreciated. For the quality of albums like More Constant Than the Gods, they should be lauded.