Saturday, October 22, 2016

Album Review: Red Fang - "Only Ghosts"

Hmmm.  Indeed.  There are some bands who do one thing well, and some bands who do many things well, but rarest of all is the band that does many things well while convincing you they’re only doing one thing.  Red Fang is in this last group, and their new album “Only Ghosts” is the perfect testament to the very idea that musical ideologies need not be locked into a single idiomatic style.

So what the hell does that mean?  I’m glad I asked.  What that means is that you can be a metal band who incorporates some punk or some pop or some blues or whatever and still sound more like a straight-up metal band than you do any of those other influences.  Red Fang’s new record borrows from all of those, and rather than bend their sound to those paradigms, they bend the paradigms to their sound.  It’s a subtle synthesis of musical ideas, not easily achieved, but oh, how it makes “Only Ghosts” a tempting onion to peel.

Reading that back, it still sounds like pompous high-handed journalistic crap, so let’s try to hammer this out from the baseline, beginning with examples.  The elephant in the room comes first, which is the obvious influence of grunge.  Red Fang has always had some of that in their blood, it’s probably inevitable given their geographical upbringing, but there are large sections of this new album that seem to borrow heavily from the darkly boiling cauldron that is Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger.”  Jumping to the album’s back half, “The Smell of the Sound” carries all the hallmarks of “Slaves and Bulldozers,” from the plodding repetition of slow, deep chords and the long stretches of vocal silence allowing for the melody, if it can be called such, to blossom and carry.

You can go down the list.  “Shadows” and “Not For You” (not a cover of the Pearl Jam song,) both repeat their choruses like the punk classics of old, complete with short, staccato riffs, easily replicated and timed out for easy listening.  The construction is devilishly simple – a few chords, a sing along chorus and enough energy to keep the music’s threat level up without sounding cartoonish.

There’s also, lest we leave anything out, a distinct flavor of desert rock mixed in here, most visible in the tenor twang and minimalistic riff repetition of “Cut it Short.”  Red Fang at no point really delves deeply into the stereotypical drone of desert rock, but they lay their music down on the border, casually getting close to the line.

As we said at the top though, what makes this record unique is that Red Fang can do all of these things and still sound intrinsically like Red Fang, rather than sounding like Soundgarden or Kyuss or The Ramones or whoever.  That shows a level of mastery that is altogether uncommon in the modern age of copycat bands and digital production.  There’s still a lot of the hallmarks of Red Fang here, from the off-kilter, almost disinterested clean vocals to the brash drum work and crashing guitar tone.  So it all works, in short.

There’s only one note to make – the conscious emphasis on short, accessible riffs for “Only Ghosts” does mean that there’s a lot of similar-sounding songs, which at a first glance can appear to blend into one another.  While there are a lot of subtle shifts in sound, there’s not the automatically detectable variation that spanned “Murder the Mountains.”  Therefore it’s recommended that for the first couple listens, fans should take in “Only Ghosts” when they’re not otherwise distracted.

And it will take more than one listen to really hear this whole album, if that makes sense.  The reward for that patience, however, is a record that fully blooms with creativity and catchiness, which too often can’t live in the same space.  “Only Ghosts” is a distinct improvement from “Whales and Leeches,” putting the band back at the fore in their genre and among their contemporaries.

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