I might have a minor masochistic streak when it comes to reviews. Sure, much of my rapidly developing reputation for reviewing dreck (see: Akoma, Invidia, Insatia, Blind Seer) arose from sheer bad luck on blind promo selection. But why else would I stand up and say “I’ll take the ring to Mordor” when Steel mockingly requested volunteers to review a 37-minute, self-released(!), sophomore(!!), single-track(!!!), instrumental(!!!!) doom metal album? Truth is, reviews for orbital cannon-worthy dog vomit are both easier and more pleasant to write than another middling “meh,” and judging by the inevitable tsunami of comments, they are more fun to read, too. So I prepared to once more do what is right and sacrifice my ears and soul for the entertainment of the unwashed masses, diving blindly once more into Canyon of the Skull‘s The Desert Winter, an album that had four strikes against it before I even started.
A while ago, I mentioned my admiration for the way 40 Watt Sun used repetition and silences as tools in their music on last year’s Wider Than The Sky. It was a divisive disc, for sure, but it had a mesmerizing effect for me. As I listened to The Desert Winter, I found myself reminded of that album more than once. Although they employ them very differently from 40 Watt Sun, Canyon of the Skull show themselves capable of wielding the same songwriting weaponry. The album opens with sparse drum hits, spaced apart, establishing the highly deliberate pace for much of the track. When the guitars do come crashing in, the space is kept wide and empty. There is a paradoxically loose feel to the execution of the meticulous build-up of the music, and the first real riffs don’t grind into the ring until minutes have passed. The drums pick up in wake of the crushing riff, injecting fill after fill like Brann Dailor’s wet dreams. They balloon into space, to the point where the guitar riffs keep time and the drums cascade together into a trance-inducing extended solo, creating a dense atmosphere that was not there before.
The duo, Erik Ogershok (guitars, bass) and Adrian Voorhies (drums), wields the twin tools of space and repetition with fervor throughout the album. Around ten minutes in, the curtain of drums slowly retreats, and the ringing of the hollow flows into its stead, creating a room where the guitars can morph from crushing riffs to a hazy desert twang that reveals an Earth-like desolation. Although this part is held slightly too long, redemption is achieved when a squealing lead guitar joins the rhythmic downtuned crashing two-thirds in, a well-timed extra layer on the sparse instrumentation. Although the repetition may occasionally be overused, the hypnotic nature of the interplay between the guitars and the drums weaves a capturing spell. The band takes all the bullet points that seemed to point to certain failure and uses them to construct a visage of burning up under the scorching sun while lost in Death Valley.
Which makes it particularly galling that the production (by Proscriptor of Absu) ruins the record completely. The drums, by any measure the heart and soul of this album, literally sounds like pans and barrels. The opening actually underlines the effect; every dual drum hit seems to say: “yep, this one also sounds like shit.” The pleasant grit on the guitars is almost lost in their dull, bass-boosted sound. The dynamics are muffled and flat, and when the focus is on only two instruments, it is unforgivable to give them this treatment. Many albums have been lost to terrible production, but rarely has the gulf between the songwriting achievement and the recording quality been this large. It’s like an acrobat performing an amazing stunt, only to slip on a banana peel and break his neck while taking his bow.
I was prepared to hate The Desert Winter. Hearing the awful production only seemed to confirm my prejudice. But instead, as I discovered how the shit production was holding back the great, hypnotic songwriting, I just felt sad and angry. Canyon of the Skull took several risks in writing The Desert Winter. Instrumental albums, single track albums, and stoner doom all regularly have problems with keeping the music interesting from start to finish, and combining the three seemed a recipe for disaster. Instead, with their knack for hypnotic repetition, the gamble paid off all the way up to the mastering, where it was blown to bits like a blue shell on the finish line in Mario Kart. We are all poorer for it.