Black Space Riders play what most folks call space rock and the band itself refers to as the New Wave of Heavy Psychedelic Space Rock. Setting aside any quibbles about the existence of various Waves and the relative value of dubbing New ones, the first thing to notice about this German act’s new record, Refugeeum, is that it isn’t obviously space rock. You could probably get away with just calling it stoner rock, as long as you qualify it as the stretchy, drifting, nomadic kind. That would be important because, just as space rock is all about the essence of exploration, without and within, so Refugeeum ponders a vexing unknown, albeit one much more depressingly mundane than the nature of Dark Matter (or whether you can get high by smoking it): Black Space Riders turn their lenses inward for their fourth LP to explore the infinitely more frightening condition that is too many human beings inflicting incomprehensible horrors on others.
Refugeeum’s concept is drawn straight from the loudest and most consistently present clickable headlines on whatever app you use to gather them. From the ongoing pragmatic dehumanization and exploitation of Middle Eastern and African diaspora to the abuse of children at the hands of those designated and sworn to protect them in these most vulnerable places in the world but also everywhere else. It isn’t clear at first that space rock (or stoner) has the capacity to carry such heavy stuff (see, those tags just seem silly in this context), but Black Space Riders handle it in an interesting way. The music isn’t engineered to plumb the emotional depths of human depravity, as we might expect from a heavy metal or hard rock project. Rather, the songs circle around instances of inhumanity, swooping in and through it and then back out again to give us a closer look without smashing us in the face with terrible reality, the music instead being a clever way to ask us to think about it, that’s all.
The vehicle for this existential exploration being space rock and/or stoner rock means your idea of the sound is at least in the ballpark, even if your only notion of 4:20 is that it’s 40 minutes till work’s done for the day. The vibe emanates from the Palm Desert, sharing waves with Kyuss and Fu Manchu, and it resonates with classic Hawkwind and Pink Floyd at their most atmospheric. But those elements, built as they are to lift and cruise, however earnestly, don’t handle the gravity of the concept. Black Space Riders give Refugeeum the weight of darkness by lining the atmospheric furrows with sludgey, sober repetition, and loading the troughs with compounded melancholy and anxiety. And even with all that, these songs manage to carry a relatively resilient ray of hope, often on the strength conveyed by vocals that reflect clenched-teeth tenacity more than brute force, and in the guitars’ bright light streaks across the night sky. Whereas the guitars shine, they do so mostly in service of the greater atmospheric goals of the record and often play backseat to a rich and fantastically locomotive drum and bass section, which is rewarded handsomely for its efforts with lots and lots of spotlight.
Despite its rather heavy concept, Refugeeum is an enormously enjoyable record that plays equally well turned up to outloud the vacuum on Sunday morning as on headphones under high scrutiny. It’s particularly good at drawing the listener in with infectious riffs and basslines and melodies to where the lyrics might nudge a reminder of humankind’s inherent shittiness and spark just a little bit of thought about what a fella might do to make things just a little less shitty in his part of the world when he’s done with Sunday chores.