Joy takes “retro” seriously. I’m sure most of our readers are familiar with the morass of “retro” groups that exclusively write music with a deaf ear to everything recorded after a particular golden time in the history of heavy metal, but this San Diego power trio set back the clock to a time pre-dating the genre entirely, recalling when Black Sabbath was a blues band and “heavy metal” existed only as a Steppenwolf lyric.
Under the Spell of Joy is their sophomore record, kicking with the crackling, sinewy clamor of “Miles Away” after the heavy-eyed acoustic opener “Under the Spell,” and during those two songs it seems as if Joy might be on to something. On a sonic level alone, it’s frankly irresistible – the production is loud, clear, and downright filthy, searing the trio’s loose, bluesy compositions to a crisp. Each player meets the grimy production with particularly unhinged performances, with special mention to the rhythm section. Drummer Paul Morrone in particular makes savage use of his minimalistic drumkit, taking the wheel on the bulk of the record with a groovy, muscular performance. His robust percussive framework gives plenty of room for bassist Justin Hulson and guitarist Zach Oakley to show off their individual talents, with the former sporting an dry, gnarled tone and the latter making luxurious use of wah-pedal soloing.
As is befitting the jam-like nature of the songs, Joy operates as a monolith of pure pentatonic-blues-scale revelry. Lyrics, swallowed by vocal effects and delivered in a quivering, fearful bleat, take a self-conscious backseat to heavy, manic blues rock. Minor stylistic respites are offered in the form of the acoustic hippie dirge “Death Hymn Blues” and a freewheeling saxophone that kicks down the door during “Confusion” and closer “Back to the Sun,” but the fundamentals of Joy’s sound is firmly rooted in the raw, drug-addled proto-metal of Hendrix and Blue Cheer.
Under the Spell of Joy sounds great and is more than confidently played, but I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t be rather numbing to any sober person’s attention span to listen to the record all the way through. Joy, no matter how authentically old-school they sound or how vintage their equipment may be, is ultimately a band that sounds like other bands. There is little in Joy’s rather stunted compositional toolkit that does much to separate this admittedly talented trio from the morass of groups that competently – and uncreatively, I would argue – find their niche within the confines of very specific genre conventions. Even the aforementioned acoustic numbers or the addition of a saxophone or hammond organ do little more than break the monotony, leaving the bulk of the record to deadeningly over long sections of wah-pedal shredding and occasionally stale blues rock riffing.
Whether this is a serious problem or not depends entirely on whether you have a tolerance for groups that competently ape their influences. I’m certainly guilty of this; I have no excuse for why I enjoy many callow black metal groups that shamelessly and uncreatively rehash the narrow conventions set by Norwegian standards such as Filosofem and A Blaze in the Northern Sky. In that same vein, perhaps you, dear reader, are one such person for whom Vincebus Eruptum finally has lost its charm, leaving you with a hunger for more retro blues rock to cure that summertime blues – in which case, this record will undoubtedly hit the spot.