Sunday, May 1, 2016

Album Review: Bonehawk - "Albino Rhino"

Okay, raise your hand and repeat the compulsory oath: ‘I am a metal fan, therefore I revere Black Sabbath as the proper and true fathers of the genre.  Subsequently, I have an eternal soft spot for all blues-based metal, regardless of what other subgenres I enjoy.’  There.  Done.  Every metal fan has had this thought a thousand times, every metal fan is a sucker for this whether they like it not, never mind admit it or not.

There’s one subconsciously annoying truth of blues metal, that original breed of the genre that stays focused on groove and depth of tone over all other characteristics, which is that blues metal is secretly the horror movie of metal.  Allow an explanation – in cinema, horror movies (zombie movies in particular) are considered the easiest to make, because they don’t cost that much and it’s a palpable scare that people are used to, an easily achieved thrill on a shoestring budget.  So too it is with metal; nearly any asshole who’s bothered to learn the blues scale and invested in a pedal or two can cobble together some garage-rate blues groove.

So, why the long diatribe, when the name of the band being reviewed hasn’t even been mentioned yet?

Because while horror movies and blues metal are the easiest to make, they’re among the hardest to make well.  The audience has seen the tricks and gimmicks, and to truly make a memorable horror film, you need to capture the imagination of the mind, less than the reaction of the eye.  This is why “Jaws” and “Suspiria” and “Rosemary’s Baby” work so well.  In metal, that means either absolutely killing it in the riff writing department (Mountain of Wizard,) or incorporating an interesting mix of other elements (The Sword.)

“Albino Rhino,” the debut album from Michigan blues metal band Bonehawk, does a little of both.

The album introduces itself plainly enough, but is one of those rare experiences where the more it’s heard, the more it’s enjoyed.  Sure, you can hear “Argenia” and get a pretty fair idea of the music that’s to come, but the classic rock-inspired artistry of a later tune such as “Ulysses” may not totally unfold until the second pass.  What’s important to note here is that first impressions of “Albino Rhino,” particularly in light of the way the album is stacked with a comparative plodder like “Sexy Beast” in the second slot, may belie the real takeaways from the record.

By and large though, Bonehawk has created a riff-based atmosphere that speaks more to the soul of their musical style than to the actual mathematics of it.  The long, twin-guitar solo of “Nomad” isn’t about technical acuity or shredding speed, but instead appeals to the very root of the blues, played with emotion and a since of longing that has been a hallmark of the genre since it bubbled up from the delta and was captured by Robert Johnson.  The addition of a twin guitar into the solo is a nice touch, easily pinched from luminaries like Judas Priest or Iron Maiden and applied here.

The atmosphere of “Albino Rhino” is varied but generally spot on, borrowing generously from metal, classic rock and even the heyday of grunge, as we see in the gleeful distortion and deliberate pacing of “Going Over the High Side.”  Bonehawk readily displays a learned, fanatical understanding of their inspirations, folding genre tropes into their sound that in a fashion that is more street smart than academic, but better for it.  The album concludes with the title track, a wandering romp which is at different points reflective of artists ranging from Black Sabbath to Thin Lizzy to the Sword to Priestess, all alloyed together in a single eight-minute ride.

Okay, the garden here is mostly roses, but not entirely.  “Albino Rhino” will disappoint those looking for sharp edges and genre-defining creativity.  The warm analog sound here rounds out every impact, which means the record doesn’t have a particular crunch, nor does it demand attention on the first listen.  Additionally, Bonehawk is content to weave their inspirations together in interesting ways, but there is no extrapolation here, no curious foray into what the next evolutionary step might be.  The frequent use of twin guitars here is a novel addition, but feels more like ‘what if we did this AND this?’ than ‘what if we USED this to DO this?’ which is similar but not the same thing.

Nevertheless, these are very minor hang ups in what overall is a rewarding and full listening experience.  “Albino Rhino” is a case study in dedication to both craft and fandom, well worth the time and energy.  Throw in the fact that this is only Bonehawk’s debut record, and the future for the band would appear to be limitless.

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