Red Fang - Whales and Leeches (Relapse)

Beard-rock seems too harsh a term...

Red Fang have reached an unprecedented level of cachet in their relatively short existence. And it's easy to understand the appeal -- a bunch of affable, beer-lovin' bros deftly harnessing a sludge-n'-roll approach in catchy three-minute slices, all the while communicating said affability in a series of viral, all-nonsense music videos. In fact, while I was playing this album in my office, I found instant admirers of the sound in two of my coworkers. Understand, one of these coworkers proudly stakes out Beyonce as his abiding favourite in the musical arena. This likely speaks less to Red Fang's musical similarities with Sasha Fierce, and more to their instinct for gut-level rock that can get near-anyone's head nodding.

On 2011's Murder on the Mountains (Relapse), the dudes laid down their core sound, capitalizing on the legacies of groove-rockers like Clutch and Mastodon, while staking their own unique place in the soundscape. Now, with Whales and Leeches (Relapse), the boys seem poised to capitalize on what they've unwittingly been building up to now. More varied in texture, this album shows a band trying out new ideas, adding to their toolset, and just generally doing that thing all bands are "supposed" to do -- mature.

The album kicks off with vintage Red Fang. Doen is a showcase for the band's ability to take stoner grooves and resolutely rev them to an almost untenable speed, only to bring the whole thing to a grinding halt at the drop of a shotgunned can with lurching, angular riffs of tectonic proportion. Commence the headbanging. Behind the Light likewise keeps it weird n' wild with that herky-jerk groove that is so much the Fang's jurisdiction. 

Some ideas don't quite pan out. Blood Like Cream is one of those moments where you kinda wonder if they were trying to score a radio single -- the song is straight 4/4, with a sort of rah-rah chorus that just seems a little too obvious. An attempt at streamlining perhaps, but not necessary when there is so much unconventional paydirt to be found elsewhere. Later in the album, Failure drags monotonously forth. And Voices of the Dead features strong lyrics, but again, lack of compositional variation or inventiveness is a bit disappointing in light of what Red Fang can and has done. Vocals are also a sticking point on some of these songs -- the subtle, QOTSA-esque groove of This Animal's instrumentation is negated by a tendency toward indiscriminate yelling, whilst Every Little Twist has trouble finding a clean vocal style to accompany its own space-rock travails.

Other tracks, however, demonstrate some real heft. No Hope, for example, is the rocker that Blood Like Cream wished it could be, especially when drummer John Sherman swings the groove halftime. Meanwhile, the evil-eyed Crows in Swine welds a satisfyinglyMastodon-ian front half to an organ-driven, hellridin' caboose. Then there's 1516. The vocals shamelessly channel a howl-n'-growl aesthetic reminiscent of King Buzzo and Jared Warren (Melvins), and when the hi-hat tightens up, it gets a real jolt from Thee Clutch School of Groove.

Dawn Rising emerges as a somewhat uneven centerpiece to the album. A mudstomping intro builds to a freefall into a dark and slimy cave, the signature yowl of fellow Northwesterner, Mike Scheidt (Yob) echoing off the dripping walls. When I initially heard those echoing whispers, I swore I was hearing Melvins' A Senile Animal for the first time. Yet Scheidt's vocals are not adequately matched by those of Aaron Beam, who spoils some of the atmosphere of the song. 

 With Whales and Leeches, Red Fang don't seem concerned with "straddling" the line between staying true to their original sound, and innovating. Experimentation with composition, vocals, and textures show a band that is not content now to cash in on whatever beard-crowd creds it might have unwittingly accrued. Many tasty ingredients are in place here. However, there are also real limitations here which may negate the creation of music with true groove n' menace.

Whales and Leeches is out now on Relapse Records.