Demonic Death Judge – The Trail Review

I think you can tell a lot about an album by its cover. Not judging a book by its cover, of course, but any droney and hallucinatory Earth art or menacing Mayhem cover will tell you exactly what to expect. You look at Autopsy’s Shitfun, and, well, what you see is what you get. Except the fun. Maybe you can’t even judge the music within, like Black Sabbath’s weird-ass LARP’ing dude on Paranoid or the uncomfortably proud cow depicted on Cattle Decapitation’s Human Manure–the music’s quality is no question, but the art brings up many. Then there’s Demonic Death Judge, whose stoner/sludge discography covers appropriately stoner-lookin’ things, like psychedelic swirls (The Descent), ominous stone faces (Skygods), and spooky diving bells straight outta Scooby-Doo (Seaweed). You can imagine my first impression, then, with The Trail, which doesn’t really give an impression of, like… anything: yes, those are definitely mountains, perhaps a place where one would expect a trail. With a relatively low first impression, does The Trail overcome its limp artwork or is it as boring as its art suggests?

The fantastically named Demonic Death Judge is a sludge/stoner quartet from Kymenlaakso, Finland, having released two EPs and three full-lengths of plodding and hazy dirges since 2009, The Trail being their fourth. Their first two full-lengths were nearly identical to Louisianan Thou’s gloomy sludge affairs, pitching molasses-thick riffs, blackened rasps, and decidedly bleak themes. Beginning with single “Taxbear” and full-length Seaweed, they began to inject more groove into their hazy sound, and it benefited their identity greatly, abandoning dark moods in favor of something that feels warm, wild, and untamed. Ultimately, while it remains somewhat derivative, too long, and unchallenging, The Trail represents its wild theme very well in an album that benefits from its refreshing lightheartedness.
Following Seaweed’s trajectory, The Trail utilizes groovy riffs to a headbanging degree, accented by southern rock tricks, contemplative plucking, and patient songwriting. Tracks like “Filthy as Charged,” “Fountain of Acid,” and “We Have to Kill” utilize slo-mo Pantera-esque riffs funneled through dense Weedeater-styled haze, an aural equivalent of a snail’s pace steel-toed boot to the balls. “Flood” and “Hardship” are also of note, hearkening to the swampy feel of The Sign of the Southern Cross or Down in a fusion of smokey riffs and bluesy flourishes. Meanwhile, tracks like “Cougar Charmer,” “Shapeshifting Serpents,” “Cougar Charmer (Reprise)” and the title track are organic sprawlers that utilize southern plucking and other tricks like harmonica and acoustic guitar to convey an outdoor feeling, conveying desolation and warmth in one fell swoop. Creating tracks of full-throttle groove and patient sprawl in equal measure could potentially doom an album’s consistency, but to its credit The Trail lives up to its exploratory name, feeling like a hike through the sun-bathed woods with each tonal shift a natural bend in the path.

That’s not to say that The Trail is perfect. While its lighthearted mood is refreshing, it does little to challenge genre tropes of the sludge/doom greats like the aforementioned Thou, Cough, or Eyehategod. It’s surprisingly straightforward–fuzzy grooves and patient folky atmosphere–but its lightheartedness is what also keeps it from succeeding. Caught between a rock and a hard place, its excessive seriousness doomed The Descent and Skygods, but the inherent gravity of the scene is a standard by which the greats have been measured. In that sense, The Trail’s tone tries to bridge the gap between the darkness of sludge and the playful haze of stoner, and settles more into the ballpark of Weedeater or Electric Wizard without committing to the ganja theme, which some may see as an identity crisis. At ten tracks and forty-nine minutes long, it also starts to feel too long, even if its back half holds much of the best material.

With as basic and straightforward as The Trail’s artwork is, my expectations were low, wondering if it was time Demonic Death Judge let themselves go. While their fourth LP is by no means the best album of the year and adds little to its stoner stylings, it’s a breath of fresh air from the seriousness of its weighty sludge influence. It’s frankly too long, its main glaring issue, but its atmosphere of untamed wilderness through southern rock and bluesy folk is worth a listen. It hearkens kickassery and contemplation in a suave style and just plain fun album. If Coronavirus is keeping us inside long-term, consider taking a trek down this Trail.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Suicide Records
Websites: Bandcamp | Facebook
Releases Worldwide: March 27th, 2020

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