[Covert art by Peder Bergstrand]
The most notable aspect of Greenleaf’s new album, Echoes from a Mass, is its tone. And that’s as it should be for any band playing any kind of music, but it’s especially true for a stoner rock band, isn’t it? Riffs, of course, are the beating heart, but there’s got to be something to pump. Tone is lifeblood.
Tommi Holappa has been absolutely steadfast in delivering reliably righteous fuzz since he founded this Swedish stoner stalwart in 1999, originally as a side project to his main band, Dozer, and then eventually as a proper “real” band beginning in 2014 with the addition of Arvid Hällagård (then Jonsson) on vocals.
Wide and warm as ever, like the embrace of the summer sun, Greenleaf’s eighth LP also brings with it a bit of chill in the air. There are clouds in the sky and it’s a little less comfortable in their shadows. Much of the difference in Echoes’ feel is up to a shift in emotional tone, much of that predictably attributable to its being written during a pandemic and all that implies. The emotional shift runs deeper than that, though, as the listener will notice in the lyrics, written by Hällagård during and following divorce. The result is a poignance of which Greenleaf had previously remained blissfully unaware but that now reveals a remarkable breadth of talent and depth of character.
The emotional shift isn’t only apparent in the sounds, as Greenleaf made an almost startlingly abrupt shift in the artwork for Echoes. With Hällagård’s introduction nearly eight years ago, the band embraced a natural perspective. All three albums following featured wonderfully bright and detailed nature scenes that reflected the wilderness spirit within. This was itself a departure from those albums before, each with comparably straight forward art that mostly referenced the music and lyrics about related life stories. Hopalla introduced subtle changes in songwriting to complement Hällagård’s vocal style and lyrics, as well as a comfier tone that emphasized the natural feel, sometimes peaceful, frequently exciting, always warm and inviting.
Now look again at the artwork for Echoes from a Mass. Just two colors, muted and roughly textured. The design is Art Deco, featuring clean, smooth lines and sleek and simple forms. There’s an emphasis on the curve, especially the concentric circles indicating a disruption of calm, life’s unpredictability. Randomly scattered points fill the field around the center, each presumably affected by those expanding rings, a simple event resonating in profound ways. Notice the line cutting across the image from the upper left. It looks at first to be imposed upon the larger art, but no, it’s streaking in from behind, cutting through, the source of disruption. And it’s still active in its course, unaware or unconcerned with its effects. Notice too its ultimate impact, as the disruptor inverts the area beneath it. Where once a few black spots peppered a larger field of light, there is now a sphere of relentless black. Is it growing?
Looking at this art for the first time, one would be forgiven for missing the point, assuming that superficially plainer art should reflect an obvious turn to simpler riffs and themes. But a few spins round with the music within pulls it all together for the attentive listener. Just as there’s so much to unpack in the art, Echoes’ songs offer a bounty of the things musicians do that music lovers love most. It’s all reverberated from the blues at the heart of this music, channeling the ethos of a genre that celebrates strength born of pain, the embrace and expression of those darkest, most vulnerable emotions, and these are what come to the fore on Echoes. Arvid Hällagård is a man who’s feeling some shit.
Of course, Echoes from a Mass is not a blues record, it’s a stoner rock record and so what it does best is rock, even if it does so with its eyes cast a little bit lower than before. Tommi Hopalla’s riffs are as energetic and dynamic as ever. One of his greatest strengths is making riffs that do more than riff, they participate in the song, of a piece with the bass and drums. “Needle in My Eye” is probably the best song on the album and one of Greenleaf’s best ever, in no small part due to it the way it’s constructed, a bit unorthodox relative to your average stoner fare and absolutely right in the heart of this band’s wheelhouse. The main riff is grooved by bass and drums like heavy footsteps hurrying along the forest floor, while the lead guitar traces the path intermittently, lighter, more fleet of foot, coursing through and around without marring those footprints beneath. This is the sound of a guitarist writing songs with the whole band in mind. That sort of deference to the song over its players diffuses the spotlight and Echoes is better for it.
For a band with such strong tone, riffs, and songwriting, what really sets Greenleaf apart plainly comes down to the voice and style of Arvid Hällagård and, maybe most importantly, Tommi Holappa’s recognition of that value. It’s pretty clear that this band has grown immeasurably since Arvid came aboard, genuinely shifting the palette from which Greenleaf paints. He’s rock and roll, but he’s pop, too, and blues and soul and R&B. That’s the real throwback here: the celebration of melody as it’s belted out by a person who’s feeling it right now. Hällagård has been pretty open about his experience of divorce, that it felt like it would kill him, but also how he figured out that making music with his friends afforded him an outlet for all that anger and fear and sadness and desperation, allowing him to finally find hope in moving on. You can hear it especially on album closer, “What Have We Become,” recorded in a single take, unfiltered and unvarnished, yearning for and ultimately, quietly, finding release.
Now look back at that cover art and the movement indicated by the component parts and their arrangement. Consider the album title and its implied resonance. Notice the song titles, nearly all of them driven by verbs, and recall the fluidity and dynamism of the music the titles reference. This is no snapshot, no static moment in time. Echoes from a Mass is Greenleaf moving together with a member of their family through one of life’s nadirs and then rising together, stronger for the shared experience.