Ah, the sun-scorched desert of California. The birthplace of stoner metal with the rise of Kyuss, the arid plains are infertile for all but rocking grooves and fat riffs. Though the movement spread worldwide, including the current stoner peak in Sweden, there’s still something about bands rising from the original dustpan. Blackwülf are attempting the same with their catchy brand of accessible stoner, judging by their sophomore full-length Sinister Sides. Sure, their actual heritage lies in Oakland, which is pretty much as far from desert environments as you can get in the state, but I won’t split hairs over geographical minutiae. Bring on the haze!
Blackwülf quickly demonstrate what they do best: the melancholic gaze of desert rock. Opener “Gate of Sorrow” builds on a wistful riff, establishing a mood of nostalgic despondency. It grinds and grooves as vocalist Alex Cunningham wails in desperation. The melancholy breaks on an ass-kicking riff from the Fu Manchu stables. The desert-gaze returns on Johnny Cash-inspired ballad “Waiting on Tomorrow” and combat-weary war song “Battle Lines,” and they are consistently the high points of the album, possessing the most atmosphere, personality and emotion. That isn’t to say these guys can’t rock hard as well. The title track thrives on its wah-wah riffing and free-form soloing, the guitars fuzzy and lithe, taking a leaf from The Atomic Bitchwax’ playbook. The heaviest song is “The Tempest,” a mid-paced steam engine with a hammering chorus and a groove-laden main riff. Don’t expect an Ufomammut level of heft though, levity is the name of the game here and it earns Blackwülf their stripes.
The only direct issue with Sinister Sides is a slump in the midsection, namely “Dead to the World” and “Blind to Fate.” While not bad by any means, they don’t contain that effortless groove the rest of the album displays. The former track particularly seems to shift the attention from hook-filled riffs to the lyrics, which are run-of-the-mill anti-1% political statements without the fire and fury to make them convincing. “Blind to Fate” performs a swampier version of the same trick, with only marginally more success. The riffs are more halting and lose the rocking groove the band has been building so far.
If I were reviewing this in a vacuum, I’d be pretty much done here, but I’m not and I’m not. The unanswered question, you see, is: ‘would it be worth getting this over the million other bands playing the same style?’ Fu Manchurian candidates are a dime a dozen after all, and though I don’t actively seek them out I’ve reviewed several right here. While Sinister Sides is a highly solid album you would not regret purchasing, it also doesn’t rise above its peers significantly. It doesn’t have quite enough personality to cross that barrier, despite the above-average vocals and quality hooks. It feels too safe to really excite, and ‘safe’ is a word I don’t like to associate with metal at the best of times.
All in all, Sinister Sides is an album I’d really like to enjoy more than I do. The first spin or three, the solid vocal work and fun, catchy riffs were more than plenty to have me nodding appreciatively, putting a skip in my step and a snap in my fingers. But repeat exposure slowly eroded these rays of sunshine, replacing them with a ‘same old’ feeling and a dislike for the weaker cuts. I maintain Blackwülf are a promising outfit with plenty of talent, but they need to up their game if they wish to break out of the mold shaped by the remnants of the countless light stoner bands that came before.