Bay area supergroup Vhöl seemed to come out of nowhere with their self-titled 2013 debut. Led by Hammers of Misfortune/Ludicra guitarist John Cobbett, Vhöl contains members from both bands but proved to be a different beast entirely, combining disparate elements and metal subgenres into something truly original. Two years later, the follow-up Deeper Than Sky arrives, and given the band’s pedigree and the quality of the debut, my expectations are high.
Opening with some Wyld Stallyns-esque guitar noodling, “The Desolate Damned” kicks the door down with riffs that reek of classic metal, yet tinted by the weirdness that Vhöl seems to emanate easily. “3 AM” explores the punk/hardcore side of the coin, with Scheidt’s rapid-fire delivery channeling Minor Threat in particular, although the song also boasts a near-operatic chorus and plenty of sideways metal riffage as well. Fans of Vhöl‘s debut record will also notice the massively improved production, which boasts a cleaner, less muffled sound without drastically altering much else.
Up next is the title track, a 12-minute monstrosity that explores several different moods and styles. While fundamentally rooted in thrash metal, the song also contains detours into psychedelia, female choral vocals, and, at the eight-minute mark, one of the sickest slide guitar riffs in metal history. Comparing it to Leviathan-era Mastodon doesn’t nearly do it justice, but this track is similar in scope.
Instrumental “Paino” serves as the album’s halftime show, crossbreeding a Voivod bassline with silent-movie piano soloing to create a really weird beast. I have no idea who’s playing piano on this one (probably bassist Sigrid Sheie, also the keyboardist in Hammers of Misfortune), but I’ve not heard anything quite like it. After that, the second half of Sky proceeds to get even heavier and weirder. “Red Chaos” approaches old-school Slayer levels of speed and fury, while the eight-minute “Lightless Sun” appropriates blastbeats and trem picking for it’s own prog-metal purposes, and somewhat scratches the itch left by Ludicra‘s demise. Closer “The Tomb” is even more rabid, while still finding room for the melodic flourishes that are the band’s trademark.
As always, Aesop Dekker (Agalloch) attacks the drum kit with the primal force he’s become known for. Sheie’s bass is distorted and grinding, if not quite as overbearing as on the debut, and her backing vocals are an integral part of this record. Vocalist Mike Scheidt (Yob) is still a bit polarizing to me. I was not a fan of his clean vocals on the debut, and hearing them louder and clearer on Sky has not changed my mind. However, he does bring a certain energy to the screaming sections that I can appreciate. More to the point, the vocals are not the reason I am listening to this album (no offense to Mr. Scheidt if he’s reading this).
It’s hard for me to write about John Cobbett without getting hyperbolic, but he truly is an unsung hero in present-day metal. Stylistically, he’s a descendant of founding fathers like Iommi, Blackmore and Lifeson, while also taking cues from ’80s hardcore, the Voivod/Coroner school of weirdness, and even early black metal. As a result, he’s working with a much wider palette than most, both as a composer and as a guitarist. There are moments on Sky where it feels like Cobbett is a practitioner of some kind of lost art, and while his playing is unique, it also feels familiar, and right.
So there you go. If you hate heavy metal, or riffs, or fun, definitely don’t check out Deeper Than Sky.