Sound has a mind of its own. That’s a pretty thought, isn’t it? It’s completely wrong, but maybe an easier pitch is that sounds can become so freighted with contextual baggage that they summon entire worlds of imagery and allusion. This can be a crutch, by allowing a musician to piggyback on the world-building work of past greats, but it can also be an opening: by recontextualizing familiar sounds in unexpected ways, the listener glimpses mirror history, a retelling of old stories in a new language. Tongue of Silver, the debut full-length from Baltimore’s Lathe, falls into the latter category, with its heavy use of pedal steel guitar creating an expansive, contemplative, evocative sound that feels both lived-in and restless.
“Journey to the East” throws a spotlight on Flynn Diguardia’s drumming, which is never flashy or demonstrative, but instead keeps these songs driving forward with the air of someone doggedly marching to a distant outpost just off the edge of the map. Lathe’s music is always tethered to a particular feeling, but they use a variety of techniques to get there. Sometimes they hit with the fuzzy heft of stoner metal, and at other times they aim for the languorous depth of drone/doom, but occasionally (like on “Rodeo Fumes”) they kick up a straight-ahead heavy rock ruckus that dissolves into a squall of noise. Elsewhere, the buttery smooth soloing on “Cauliflower” comes across a little bit like Earthless on a platterful of heavy downers.
Album opener “Vinegar” starts with a tremulous pedal steel solo, but Davis’s bass draws it down into a heavier furrow with its barely perceptible swing. When the band hits a full downbeat at around the two-minute mark, the relatively straightforward movements from each player melt together beautifully and call to mind a pitiless, slow-moving dust storm on the plains. The guitar on “Drain” is filtered through an effects pedal that almost makes it sound like a harmonica, and the way it rubs against the rough, billowing texture of the organ and fuzzed-out bass is a tactile delight. In truth, if you squint just right, the song could almost pass for an instrumental piece from Neil Young or The Band. Album closer “Morris,” in contrast, opens with a full Sunn O))) rumble before the drums kick in, but even at moderate volume it’s enough to set the teeth to a pleasant rattle.
Tongue of Silver is a beautifully focused, holistic album. It’s precisely the sort of album that might first prompt you to ask whether or not it even counts as metal, but as soon as you settle into its atmosphere of comforting darkness, you’ll soon realize the futility of that line of questioning. Around 2:45 in “Journey to the East,” Davis and Paltell whip up a post-rock wind tunnel with their guitars and you can feel your feet dragging as if working like hell to cross a high mountain pass. There’s a physical weight to these sounds that nevertheless communicate a sense of stillness even in their heaviest moments. This is riveting music, perfect for either riding out a sweltering summer or passing a deep winter’s hibernation.