Being the jaded old fuck that I am, there are very few musicians that I go into straight-up fanboy mode for these days. One of those individuals is guitarist John Cobbett. Who, you ask? Cobbett is a member of prog sextet Hammers of Misfortune, and has done time in both Slough Feg and Ludicra, which puts him at the center of San Francisco’s present-day metal scene. When Ludicra abruptly folded after touring for 2010’s brilliant prog-black-metal opus The Tenant, I was genuinely bummed out. Lucky for me, Cobbett quickly assembled a new outlet for his heavier material, dubbed Vhöl.The lineup of Vhöl splits the difference between Hammers and Ludicra, borrowing bassist Sigrid Sheie from the former and drummer Aesop Dekker from the latter. (the sticker on the CD case will undoubtedly say “Aesop Dekker of Agalloch,” because he’s in that band too). The wild card in this lineup is vocalist Mike Scheidt, of YOB fame.
The sound that emanates from Vhöl is simply massive, in the most raw, un-produced way possible. Other than the occasional overdub, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was recorded entirely live. Sheie, despite being better known as a keyboardist, has a thick, grinding bass tone that dominates the low end and is probably causing whales to freak the fuck out somewhere. Dekker, as usual, sounds like he is hitting the drums with his fists and/or tree trunks.
But unfortunately for both of those guys, John Cobbett dominates this fucking album. Every track is packed with monster riffs, reminiscent of a faster Voivod, or if Motorhead were aliens. Shit, the very first track blasts through 3 and a half minutes of riff mayhem before Scheidt even starts singing, just to show you they mean business. Speaking of Scheidt, he spends most of this record in full-on screamer mode (or not singing at all). His clean vocals, which most people either love or hate, do crop up on a few tunes, but are mostly inoffensive.
Cobbett is probably the only guitarist alive who could pull this stuff off convincingly, because he understands the full lineage of heavy metal, from ’70s sludge through ’80s thrash into ’90s black metal and beyond. Observe as a Transilvanian Hunger-style riff in “Plastic Shaman” gets some Thin Lizzy harmonies added, as though it’s the most natural thing to do. Behold as “Illuminate” mutates from a Rush-like clean section into something far more grim and frostbitten. And “Arising” is an obvious highlight, containing about 6 of my top 10 riffs of the year.
By the time Vhöl‘s 7 tracks have passed, genre labels like “thrash,” “crust” and “black” have been rendered obsolete. And more importantly, you’ll have had your senses assaulted by an array of timeless, kick-ass riffs. If any of the aforementioned Bay-area bands mean anything to you, or if you’re a human being who enjoys metal music, give this one a shot.