When I hear ‘sludge,’ I have a very specific sound in mind. I want wretched vocals, whiskey-soaked guitar riffs, and lyrics about living at the absolute nadir of human existence. I want it to live up to its name, flooding the sonic landscape with riffs that sound like they were written in an abandoned warehouse during an opium binge. Thus, I was a bit disappointed when first researching Ontario’s Adrenechrome and finding that the ‘sludge’ tag often used to describe them is, alas, very loosely applied. As the 1950s comic book inspired artwork and the “garage sale vinyl binge” promo photo indicate, this is a band more influenced by Torche than Eyehategod, more concerned with having fun than flooding concert halls with animal blood. Nevertheless, I do enjoy some lighthearted bands occasionally, and a quick listen to this quartet’s previous LP, 2012’s Hideous Appetites, revealed some tasty licks from guitarists Chris Friesen and Tim Kehoe. Will sophomore effort Tales from Adrenechrome continue to balance the fun with the bangin’ axework?
Sure – but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a total winner. In the same vein as Torche’s Harmonicraft and Mastodon’s The Hunter, Adrenechrome specialize in the sort of bubbly sludge-lite that sprinkles in some pure heavy metal and – in Mastodon’s case, anyway – a bit of Southern-fried charm. Instrumental opener “A Familiar Face” makes this clear from the get-go, opening with leads that sound like Slough Feg playing a child’s lullaby before settling into a riff that I’ve swear heard from Coheed & Cambria, adding some “whoa-whoa” croons to the mix to finish things off. From there, the Southern influence gets even more blatant. First proper track “Lockstep” slows its speed metal verses to a sludgy, moaning chorus, while follow-up “Black Brubeck” goes full honkytonk by layering a banjo over its spinning guitar lines.
The guitarwork is easily the highlight here, be it the riffs themselves or the leads. Through compositions that comfortably settle in the 4 to 5 minute range, Friesen and Kehoe tear through fretwork that ranges from early Mastodon crunch (the ripping ending to “God Sized Shadow”), teeth-rotting twirling melodies (closer “The Lead Elephant”), and delightfully bluesy leads (“The Heart and the Feather”). It’s enjoyable, but some transitions could use work. The snarling Master of Puppets riff that closes “Lockstep” for example, is a treat that feels sorely out of place in context.
The songwriting woes don’t end there, unfortunately. While there’s a few memorable moments sprinkled throughout these 31 minutes – the wailing chorus of “God Sized Shadow,” for instance, or the aforementioned melodies in “Elephant” – Tales is largely an album that all too easily fades into the background. While there’s no ‘bad’ track here, and the brief runtime makes it difficult to get bored, the only track I truly enjoy from beginning to end is “Elephant.” Overall, there’s just a noticeable lack of anything amazing or wholly original.
Friesen’s vocals don’t help either. Rarely does he maintain one style for more than a minute or two, choosing to vary his approach between a raspy shout, a swooning singing voice, and – in the case of the chorus of “Lockstep” – a cringe-worthy croon that veers dangerously close to Godsmack-style alt-metal. He’s serviceable, but it’s tough to call him “dynamic” when his harsh vocals lack power and conviction, and his cleans are often unremarkable.
Fortunately, the production is bright and balanced, making Tales sound playful and pleasant on the ears. It’s honestly a bit difficult to criticize this, as Adrenechrome definitely sound like they’re having a blast, and the happy-go-lucky vibe is so earnest and forthright that saying you hate Tales feels like dunking your balls into a little kid’s Lucky Charms. Nevertheless, for all the cartoony fun, a bit more identity and a better ear for music quality and songwriting would have done wonders. Those with a sweet tooth for this thing, or someone wondering what a sludgier and less catchy He Is Legend would sound like, may want to check it out regardless. For the rest, trade the sludge for some vanilla pudding and give it a pass.