Album Review : Goatsnake - Black Age Blues (2015)
I have no qualms with the idea of paying for my music. Streaming has its obvious advantages, but whatever I save on records, I usually end up owing my cell phone provider. It's just that buying music has become such a karma-loaded thing since Napster changed the game at the turn of the century. Every song you buy is like having a record label executive pointing at gun at your genitals and another at his own head, beckoning you to buy the entire record.
Metal has always been a haven for artistic integrity because it is shunned by most commercial labels for being too loud and having a niche fan base that spends too little. Lots of bands start their own labels to give a voice to new talents and not get ripped off by suit-wearing bandits. One of the most successful, long-standing metal label is Southern Lord Records, which consistently released quality material and found ways to adapt to new marketing trends over the years. Does the name Sunn O))) ring a bell to you? One of its two talented founding members Greg Anderson is Southern Lord's owner. I know, it's that guy again!
Another life-affirming Greg Anderson project and perhaps my favorite is doom rock outfit Goatsnake, who quietly roared back to life last year after an eleven years studio hiatus with Black Age Blues. Fuck, I've been meaning to review this record forever and each month something new and spellbinding came out, including a brand new Sunn O))) release. But today is the day, guys. Today is where I tell you Goatsnake is back from the grave with a zombie Goatsnake record and it feels like they were never gone.
I mean, literally. The last song on their iconic record Flower of Disease is called The River, yet the first track on Black Age Blues is called Another River to Cross. They're no pretense of reinvention here. Goatsnake don't give a fuck. They're coming back because they have more of their intoxicating sludge of doom metal, blues and southern music to deliver to our faces and did I mention how gloriously good it felt to hear new material? Black Age Blues is not an original record by any means, but it's not a desperate outcry for money either. It's a solid, pounding and strangely sophisticated record only they could've come up with.
Their trademark heavy, slogging riffs are all over this record. They are kind of like the canvas Greg Anderson, Pete Stahl and the guys painted their music on. They are both omnipresent and see-through. This is where the fun starts though. The first big surprise comes right at the beginning of the first song Another River to Cross and it is...back up singers! That's right, Goatsnake has hired gospel-singing ladies to provide back up vocals and ambiance. Who the hell does that on a freakin' metal record and who could possibly MAKE IT metal? Another River to Cross is very much a plugged-in, distorted soul/blues song. It's simple, fun and oddly sassy, even by Goatsnake's standards.
The following tracks Elevated Man and Coffee & Whiskey are both strong, throwback songs to the Goatsnake we all learned to love and worship with years and absence. They even busted out ol' harmonica that textures their sound in such a unique way. If you're reading this review and don't know, you're not having hallucination caused by poisoned water or whatever. They're a metal band that incorporated gospel singing and harmonica to their sound. Not exactly the stereotypical headbanging cavemen unit. They're like the rad uncles you've never had.
My favorite songs on the record are Graves and Grandpa Jones which hit you in the face back to back. The closer A Killing Blues is also beautiful, textured and sophisticated like perhaps no other Goatsnake records I've heard before. Graves has this intense chorus that really stuck with me. They're not a bad renowned for their great chorus. They usually repeat the same line ad nauseam, but here Pete Stahl blares: Steal the light from the sun/I need to breathe/Steal the light from the sun/I need to see. It's the kind of stuff I find beautiful, you know? That a man needs it all to merely exist. That shit reaches to the middle-aged animal in me trying not to give in to his domestic instincts. Thought it was a nice surprise from a band I don't usually connect to lyrically.
There were no poor song on Black Age Blues per se, but I thought Jimi's Gone and to a certain extent Elevated Man stuck out like a sore thumb. Personally I would've axed the former (who the fuck wants to hear another song about Jimi Hendrix anyway?) and maybe swapped the latter with a song that has a better sense of identity? Elevated Man is not a bad song per se, but it doesn't bring anything to Black Age Blues. It doesn't elevate the record. I wouldn't call it a bad fit, except I do. It's something that could've seamlessly blended on Flower of Disease, but not on this subtly more sophisticated record.
What elevates it then?
I'll tell you what? The fucking brilliant and inspired performance from Pete Stahl, who sounds more powerful and diverse than I've ever heard him before. He has the blaring and hypnotic voice one needs to sing these soulful incantations. Not sure who did the arrangements and the production too (probably Greg Anderson), but Black Age Blues, while very much being the sequel to Flower of Disease, had its own contemporary ideas and wrinkles that made Goatsnake sound richer and more versatile than ever. It's not an experimental album by any means. The Goatsnake of old is present on Black Age Blues. The guys are just older, smarter and more mature than they've ever been.
I'm thankful that Black Age Blues exists. It's not outdoing the legend of the band, but it will proudly join my music rotation for the following years. It's just the next logical piece of a long and successful musical odyssey. The saying goes that you shouldn't change the equation if it works, but Goatsnake showed on Black Age Blues that you can improve it by adding well-chosen variable. Strong, enjoyable record from a legendary band.