I could never be a music reviewer. I love to listen to music, I love to think about music, I like to perform music, and I love talking about music. But music or viewing? Not likely. I greatly admire many reviewers, some of who’s opinion matches mine almost perfectly. Others, especially certain upset heavy metal dudes, I can’t stand. But I still admire their tenacity and ability to listen to multiple albums a month, sometimes a week, and come up with erudite opinions of varying quality.
For me music is something to luxuriate in. To take my time listening, understanding, letting it sink in. This takes a while. Which makes it particularly difficult being a stoner/doom fan lately because there are literally hundreds, if not thousand,s of releases coming at us every month. Thank God for the Doom Charts, which at the very least separates the wheat from the chaff and can give us about 25 albums that are worth listening to. What I’m trying to get at is I don’t have time to listen to everything, in fact I don’t have desire to listen to everything. I’m a fan, not a reviewer. I read the comments on the Doom Charts, find what I can on Bandcamp or Tidal, and go from there.
Oh, and I have another source that keeps me in tune with what’s going on in the heavy psych/stoner/doom scene.: Ripple Music.
In brief, more than half of what comes out on Ripple, a label that caters to the above styles of heavy music and a few others, is going to end up on the Doom Charts. For the past couple years, for five dollars a month, I’ve got new albums from Kingnomad, Birdstone, Saint Karloff, and seemingly countless others. And quite a few of them I wanted to write about. But as I began with, I’m not really reviewer. There’s been a lot of awesome music released over the past couple years, and I always think about writing about it, but nothing moved me to the point that I thought I had anything worthwhile to comment upon. Until this release…
This is a very long preamble to make a very short point: this is the best album I’ve heard since Elder released Lore back in 2015. Think that’s an exaggeration? We’ll check this out – I think it’s one of the top 20 albums I’ve ever heard over my lifetime. Am I trying to justify that statement? Nope, I don’t have to. I’m not a reviewer- just some middle-aged clean and sober stoner who occasionally gets blown away by an album of such epic scope, such flawless musicianship, and such pure craftsmanship that I go absolutely crazy about it. This is one of those albums.
(The inner critic in me is telling me this is going to be way too long. But I’m writing about two songs roughly 20 minutes each in length. Long is just going to have to be the way it is.)
Yes, this is a single album composed of 2 20 minute pieces music. The theme is a mythical account of two master Japanese sword smiths: Masamune and Muramasa. In reality, they lived hundreds of years apart. But the legend persists on bringing the two together. According to this legend, each created their ultimate sword, and engaged in a contest in which each sword master placed their blade into a river. Masamune’s sword only cut leaves and debris that were floating in the water: fish and other living things went past the blade unscathed. Muramasa, contemptuous of the fact that Masamune’s blade didn’t cut the fish, placed his into the water. Everything that came within the path of the blade was cleaved in half, to bloody effect. To this day, Masamune’s swords are considered a national treasure in Japan. Muramasa, well, his blades are considered “cursed”: demonic objects with no regard or respect for life. Such is the story as I understand it, and there are dozens of variations.
Elements of this legend are conveyed by the bands Howling Giant and Sergeant Thunderhoof. Never heard of them? No problem. I think an overwhelming majority of people, even metal fans, haven’t heard of them, either. Howling Giant is a band I’ve been moderately ambivalent about for a few years. I love the name and love the concept of the band. I mean, Spaceslug is one of my all-time favorite bands. A heady, psychedelic blend of heavy riffs, hypnotic vocals, and haunting melodies. I expect a band named Howling Giant to deliver the same intensity. The thing is, they simply don’t. Howling Giant is an extremely lively and entertaining band that lacks the gravity and seriousness I prefer to listen to in my heavy psych. Much respect, but I’ve never taken them all that seriously. They wrote the song dealing with Masamune.
Sergeant Thunderhoof? I had no idea. I don’t have any experience with them, I’ve never heard a song that they’ve performed, and they were totally outside of my radar. The only thing I knew about them was they wrote the song dealing with Muramasa. Let’s just say they are very much on my radar now, have captured my full attention, and very shortly I’ll be doing a deep dive into their back catalog. Same with Howling Giant. I’m anxious to find out if there are any hints pointing to the achievement that they have accomplished with Masamune.
Ripple has been steadily advertising and teasing this album for months. It’s been all over my Facebook feed along with occasional emails reminding me of its impending release. Not really liking the one band, and having never heard of the other band, it was mildly on my radar. But for five dollars a month, I’ll listen to anything that Ripple puts out. Sure, there was the usual pre-release hyperbole, the predictable reviews from people who had advanced releases. But I read that stuff all the time, so it’s extremely rare that I’m going to get excited about impending ambivalence.
From the very first opening chord of Howling Giants’ Masamune, I knew I was in for something special. I know a lot of reviewers like to fling out references and other bands, mostly to give themselves some credibility and show off how smart they are along with their encyclopedic knowledge of rare, obscure albums. I’m honestly not trying to do that right now, but I have to admit that what came to mind was the band Mountain. Specifically, the songs Theme from an Imaginary Western and Nantucket Sleighride, both of which are well in excess of 10 minutes long. Especially the live versions.
I think Howling Giant has managed to tap into the epic songwriting ambitions of Leslie West and Felix Pappalardi (see the namedrop?) in ways I have not heard in decades. Per usual for the Howling Ones, the song is an upbeat romp with heavy overtones: and it’s a perfect match for the material. At its core, it’s a 20-minute examination of mastery and creativity, a celebration of life and living. But it’s a serious exploration, and the solemn, meditative intro serves to heighten the sense of wonder that the rest of the song conveys. I’m telling you: STOP reading this right now, and just listen to the darn thing, then listen to it again. Right away. Headphones help a lot. After repeated listening, I keep getting more absorbed into the subtle technical flourishes scattered through the work. To say that repeated listening is rewarding is an understatement. I never, ever expected this from Howling Giant, but now that I know a bit more about the group it makes perfect sense.
On the other side, we have the Muramasa piece by Sergeant Thunderhoof. I had no expectations, no feeling about them whatsoever. Like I wrote, I anticipated this album with a sublime sense of ambivalence. In fact, Masamune was so engaging, I didn’t even listen to Muramasa initially. I just kept listening to the first track 3 or 4 times. I mean, how do you follow up that opening?
Answer: with intensity. Where the Howling Ones side is at times an optimistic romp, the Hoof are indeed the polar opposite. One would think it would be nothing but dark, ominous bombast putting the “evil” of Muramasa on full display with blast beats and cookie-monster (I’m looking at you, every Death Metal band, ever) vocals. Or alternatively, a snarling Alice Cooper character, all exaggerated, caricatured evil.
Instead, they decide to present us with a human being with the ability of rending the heavens and the oceans in half with a sword of such meticulous perfection that it drives him half mad. It’s a stunning presentation, with the main character handing his very sanity to his god, assured that whatever befalls him will be absolved with grace. His perspective is indeed warped, but it’s neither parody or a cliché that they give us. Instead, Muramasa is presented as a genius looking for salvation through the very thing that’s driving him to madness. Even if you don’t pay attention to the lyrics, the musical presentation alone conveys thoughts of a tortured soul creating perfection. Every aspect is presented with control and deliberation, which is quite unexpected and surprising. The song is intense, heavy, and thundering at times, but also packs ample subtlety and texture. Like Masmune, it gets better with each listen.
Look, I’m not a reviewer. But I don’t think this album is getting anywhere near the attention it deserves. So, if this blog post brings even one person into contact with this inventive, creative, and surprisingly original concept, I’ll have done my part. No matter what, don’t take my, or anyone else’s word for it. Listen to it, buy it, and share it with someone else. It might just open up a whole new world for someone waiting for something truly epic!