Ashbury, of Tuscon, Arizona, are olde. Their debut called Endless Skies dates back to 1983 but evidently flew under the mainstream radar, while 2018’s Eye of the Stygian Witches (Stygian) is only their third full-length release in these past 35 years. Olde; Tuscon-dwellers; under-appreciated; unreliable; these are all characteristics of our very own Dr. A. N. Grier. Such a comparison with Doc Grier would ordinarily also entail further descriptions of perversion and sadism, not to mention the appalling state of the HR department after his recent dirty protests, but fortunately for these old-school rockers, they have thus far avoided such accusations. The artwork is somewhat shitty as is customary for these guys but I implore you look beyond such superficiality.
I know what you’re thinking: what the world really needs is more rock which sounds as if it were produced in the 70s and influenced by Wishbone Ash and Uriah Heep. Ashbury have the same thought and Stygian is strongly evocative of the amalgamation of progressive rock, hard rock and proto metal which characterizes such bands. It’s a retro sound but one I enjoy immensely. Nonetheless, there are plentiful moments where the guitars are sufficiently over-driven to instead evoke the more overt metal of Iron Maiden. “End of All Time,” “Good Guitar” and “Faceless Water” are the more straight-forward rockers; in particular, “Good Guitar” boasts a rollicking, biker feel which is akin to Steppenwolf. Each, and in fact the album in its entirety, is replete with era-appropriate crooned vocals in a lower-middle range, harmonizing guitars which highlight particularly good riffs and unambiguously awesome guitar solos. I’m compelled to pull the face-melt (orgasm) face utilized by professional rockstars when such solos take center-stage.
Stygian balances the more urgent, rocking tracks with an abundance of softer and acoustic elements. “Summer Fades Away” arises at track three and demonstrates that Ashbury are equally strong at piecing together more gentle compositions; pretty acoustic melodies, occasional synths and plaintive vocals carry these parts. A dusty, Americana overtone is established by the wistfulness on this track, “Waited So Long” and “Amber Glass.” Slightly strangely, “Celtic Cross” and “Out of the Blue” feature whistles and arrangements which recall Celtic music. Odd though they are, they’re drawn into wider compositions in which they don’t sound significantly misplaced. The slower tracks and passages form an important part of the record and and offer a moodier side to the Ashbury sound.
Good though they are, I think the balance of rocking parts and softer parts leans a little too far in the direction of the latter. Tracks which are snappier throughout are actually few compared with the chiller tracks, or at least compared with those which incorporate significant quieter passages. Furthermore, the two longer songs of “Waited So Long” and “Eye of the Stygian Witches” are extended versions of their regular material; they aren’t more expansive and simply recycle the same ideas for longer. On this comment, most tracks run through their second halves with protracted instrumental passages and solos. By the third or fourth track the listener is very aware of this song-writing tool and it becomes predictable. Despite this, I still feel I cannot really criticize it. A 9-minute track with 4 minutes of guitar noodling masquerading as an conclusion should fall on its face. It feels so misguided and yet these guys have the technical and emotive chops to carry it out.
My attempts at criticizing Stygian only yielded to me that Ashbury executed each aspect of the record so well. The guitar solos demonstrate great excess and the quieter moments are indeed prevalent but over repeated listens I have come to love both. Stygian is a truly enjoyable record. Moreover, its quality is indicated by my actually bothering to uncover the equally excellent (if not more so) Endless Skies. It is arguably unfair to other releases that I love this 70s aesthetic so much but I cannot question that Ashbury are one of my favorite discoveries of the year.
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: High Roller Records
Website: Too olde
Releases worldwide: September 28th, 2018