Originally written by Erik Highter.
How long is too long? Back in 1968, Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda Da Vida” took up an album side with 17 minutes of what most would call aimless noodling. In the early ’70s, Deep Purple took a four and a half minute album track, “Space Truckin'”, and set sail for the cosmic void, with live versions reaching 20 or even 30 minutes with some regularity. That propensity to embellish ’til the cows came home faded as heavy rock became heavy metal, with its subsequent pursuit of speed eclipsing slow trips around the sun. But as doom rose in popularity in the 1990s, the tempos dropped again and songs lengthened, culminating in Sleep’s hour-long opus Dopesmoker.
By 2013, it seems to have reached the point where an epic track is not just an option but an obligation. Whether album-long works from Monolithe and Lesbian, 11-hours of what can best be described as torture from Sabazius, or merely 20-plus minute tracks from such disparate bands as Paysage d’Hiver, Ritual Steel, and Ocean Chief, the mammoth cut is everywhere. Unsurprisingly, the ambition to go to such lengths does not always come with the ability to do so.
Take current doom darlings Windhand. Their latest album, Soma, has three of the best songs this young Richmond band has yet written: “Orchard”, “Woodbine” and “Feral Bones”. The first three songs on the album, they find the band in the fine southern-rock-meets-Electric-Wizard mode they captured so well on their self-titled debut. There is power in those riffs, and a haunting sense of loss in Dorthia Cottrell’s voice. Please note that none of those songs reaches even the ten minute mark. Two tracks do break that barrier, and neither is good. “Cassock” is an acceptable if unmemorable song, without either the power of “Orchard” or the hooks of “Woodbine”; though at nearly 14 minutes it approaches their combined length. Album closer “Boleskine”, on the other hand, is entirely unacceptable. It’s 30 interminable minutes, with unnecessary intros and outros (nearly three minutes of slow fade-in and nearly nine of slow fade-out), a stock doom riff as its core building material, and despite Cottrell’s always wonderful delivery, nary a hook of any kind to hang a hat on. The first solo is excellent, but a short burst of smoldering lead guitar can’t buttress a 30 minute song. It doesn’t work, and torpedoes the great first impression Soma makes.
The Earth Wants Us Dead, the new album from Connecticut doom band Sea of Bones, suffers from a having a similar tacked-on whale of a last song; unlike Soma, the album as a whole is such a powerful force that it can’t be dragged under by the bloated corpse of the title track. Sea of Bones have a modus operandi, and for most of the album stick to it like men possessed. They play slow and punishing music, yet are touched by a hint of brightness most bands that operate in those Stygian depths don’t have. Listen to “Failure of Light”; it’s nearly as long as Windhand’s “Cassock”, but unlike that song it earns its running time. The song build pays off with the darkest release. It’s like a drowning man given one more breath but not actual salvation. It’s gloriously bleak. But you can’t overlook that title track. “The Earth Wants Us Dead” begins with an ambient wash, but unlike the similar introduction to an earlier song, “Beneath The Earth”, it never truly builds or resolves to be anything more. A few times it threatens to unleash their primal fury, but alas, that never actually comes. Over 39 minutes of a rarely interesting tease. There is nothing to latch onto, nothing to pull the listener through. The rest of the album is cathartic. This is soporific.
One thing Earthless won’t do is put you to sleep. Their brand of blues-driven psychedelic hard rock is a constant pleasure; guitar, bass and drums moving, weaving, connecting, and reconnecting in surprising and entertaining ways. They’ve come back from a long hiatus to release From The Ages, and the break has done them a world of good. The first couple of cuts are the prototypical Earthless recipe: state the theme; improvise upon it; state the theme again, this time as informed by prior improvisation; repeat until sated. This is not a bad thing, for the musical conversations between drummer Mario Rubalcaba, bassist Mike Eginton, and guitarist Isaiah Mitchell are more varied than the recipe would suggest. But the big worry is that 30 minute title track. It looms over the rest of the album, and as the only song previously released (a live take appeared on the 2008 record Live at Roadburn), it has an air of familiarity that might be mistaken for the stink of a band out of ideas. However, that fearful stench is quickly dispersed. “From the Ages” is a measured, considered run through of a track that in 2008 careened out of the band’s control. The theme is given time for the band to explore and resolve, and the slower section slides naturally into place. The rise back toward a thematically promised crescendo is a masterwork of dramatic tension and transformative release. It’s an example both Sea of Bones and Windhand would be well advised to study before tackling another epic of their own.