What a difference a year makes. Exactly a year ago, Skull Servant released Traditional Black Magicks, an EP that honestly sounded like it was recorded in their Cousin Earl’s bathroom.
But there was no denying the riffs, the attitude. I highly recommend checking it out. I didn’t know Skull Servant at all until I heard the excellent Astral Apothecary, an album I gushed over without any hesitation just a few months ago. I hope you check it out.
One of the things I didn’t expect was a freshly-hatched batch of Stoned-Out Doom from these North Carolina boys so soon. Yet, here we are. Thankfully they sent me a little nudge a couple days ago. Otherwise I’d have one more regret as I try to keep up with the endless deluge of prime Stoner/Doom goodness that shows no sign of relenting any time soon.
Traditional Black Magicks II
Skull Servant doesn’t waste any time getting straight to the point with the epic opener, Hounds of Tindalos. The subject matter alone is attention-grabbing, as it’s a reference to an obscure short story published about a hundred years ago which was absorbed into the whole Cthulu Mythos.
I absolutely LOVE this song, which showcases two strong points for Skull Servant, and sets the tone for Traditional Black Magicks II. Which is both good and bad, which I’ll get to a little bit later.
The strengths that Skull Servant seem to be most proud of are the guitar work and the lyrics/vocals. Traditional Black Magicks II is a guitar-oriented album that fits in with the work of bands like Faerie Ring, Auralayer and even Hail the Void. Guitarist/Vocalist Calvin Bauer brings the same creativity, originality and technical prowess into his guitar work as the other bands I mentioned.
He comes across as some dude from Sweden given an experimental cannabinoid, like Delta-13 or something, from a sketchy dispensary imbedded in a gas station. He’s always just on the edge of losing the groove or fucking up the transition, and I keep waiting for the trainwreck. It doesn’t happen, and what feels like bad choice gone wrong ends up being the part of the song you go back to, over and over, just to feel the blissful rush one more time.
Then there’s the vocal work, with split duties from Calvin and bassist/lyricist Noah Terrel. Whenever I hear a new Skull Servant track, I always expect the vocals to be the one part of the band to drag it down into mediocrity. That never happens, mostly because Skull Servant knows how to lean into a weakness and make it a strength. They obstinately refuse to rely on processing or studio tricks to make the vocals sound…professional.
So far, there’s no compromise with these guys, and they keep it as real and unfiltered as possible. Once I get over myself and my cultural programming, I realize that what keeps Skull Servant Skull Servant is their fearless, and at times peerless, “this is us, get used to it” delivery.
The second track, Absinthe Dreams, is one of those instrumentals that is downright shocking for a lot of reasons. First, and this is also one of the main problems with Traditional Black Magicks II, is that it’s absolutely the best sounding song on the album. Not just because it’s an instrumental, but the guitars, bass, and drums come across as clear and balanced.
Second, it’s one of the only songs I’ve ever heard that could come straight off the Wretch album by Kyuss. I have no idea if they’ve even heard that album, which has been gaining a lot of respect over the past few months, with some reviewers I know claiming that is their favorite Kyuss album. I’m not sure what to make of that, but there is no denying the raw, energetic appeal of the song like that, from Kyuss or Skull Servant.
It’s All In the Mix
The thing is, it also reveals an overall problem with the album: the recording and the mix. I think part of Skull Servant’s identity as a band is how they sound on recordings, with an almost deliberate contempt for anything approaching high fidelity. I have to admit, there’s a definite punk rock/hard core appeal to it, and why I think thousands of Stoner/Doom fans will ultimately dig it.
But the mix literally sounds like Cousin Earl is actually Lars Ulrich in disguise, and he’s mastered the album wearing a set of bass-heavy Beats. By that, I mean the bass and kick drum are buried so deeply in the mix it’s hard to tell they’re actually there. And that’s a damn shame, because when I put on a pair of headphones and do some tweaking on the EQ, the bass lines and drums aren’t just good, they’re excellent.
That’s the only weakness I can find in this album, and it’s been a trend with their other releases as well. These are three of the brightest, youngest and most diverse musicians in the Raleigh Triangle area, which is saying a lot if you know anything about Raleigh. The competition is fierce, with bands like Doomsday Profit and Luurch ready, in my opinion, to make that next giant leap forward.
I’m not suggesting at all that Skull Servant should change how they sing or play, in anyway whatsoever. But I am strongly urging them to get a better recording next time, and embrace the fact that all three of them are excellent musicians, and such a strong focus on the stellar guitar playing isn’t necessary. Sounding like a garage-band, no matter how authentic, will only carry you so far.
Those issues aside, I still give Traditional Black Magicks II a very high recommendation, and it’s an album this should be streamed continuously for a while to let the awesomeness absorb into your psyche. I can’t get enough of it, and even the with questionable recording quality, no matter how much I think it’s a weakness, the nuts and bolts musicianship is nothing short of mesmerizing.