Think about running a marathon. Through the desert. On one leg. With gastroenteritis. And no map. This is how difficult it is to forge a unique and compelling sound in the saturated world of metal. Bands generally either go super heavy, or adopt a hybrid sound of some kind. But when you have bands like An Autumn for Crippled Children combining dream-pop with black metal, and Devourment making music so dense it almost absorbs light, what is a band to do? Well, if they have the balls, they could try to do both. Enter Den, a band that wants to offer you a joint, then smash it unceremoniously through your skull after two tokes. With Iron Desert, they want to blow your mind and your ear drums, but do they have the stamina to run the marathon of forging a unique sound? Or is this, like so many others before them, an unfortunate DNF (Did Not Finish)?
Den hails from Chicago, and was formed in 2010. Due to various relocations and line-up changes, Iron Desert is only the band’s second full-length, following 2014’s Exhausted. These guys play a Frankensteinian mix of doom, noise, psychedelia and drone, lathered with hardcore, and brutal vocals à la Morne or Morrow. The band’s sound has shifted over the years, becoming heavier and more bluesy, with less emphasis on drone, which is definitely to its benefit. Iron Desert is like a big plate of molasses drowned in whiskey: super dense and heavy, but with enough of a kick that it remains memorable. When it comes together, it’s really fun in a silly kinda way. But its inconsistencies stop this from being an album you’re likely to return to regularly.
From the opening notes of “Pyrite,” a very distinctive sound is forged. The combination of noise and doom could be a snooze-inducing bore, but two factors prevent this. The first is the astonishing strip-mine vocals of Adam Harris. His voice lends ferocity and urgency to Iron Desert, and provides a menacing and compelling air to almost every track. The second is the inventive and clever way the instruments combine to be catchy without sacrificing heaviness. “Entire Mire” is by no means especially complex or innovative, but the interesting riffs bound organically off each other like overactive toddlers, which makes listening to it a blast. The prominent (and funky) bass throughout the album provides additional heft and heaviness. There’re also enough clever flourishes to keep things interesting: whether spoken words (“Entire Mire”) or keyboards (“Taste for Blood”), when variety arrives it is unobtrusive and enhances the tracks. When Den sticks to this formula of heaviness, blues, scorching vocals and cool flourishes, Iron Desert soars.
Downsides generally involve the slower, longer tracks. “Bones and Flies” meanders its way unhurriedly through its course, but the lighter tone, instead of offering your ears a reprieve from the heaviness, just sounds boring. “Svalbard” really embraces the band’s doom and drone side, but by discarding the bluesy elements that make other tracks so interesting, it sounds flat and dull by comparison. It also just doesn’t have the variety in riffs or pacing to make for distinctive or compelling listening. Fans of Sun O))) may enjoy it, but at over 9 minutes long, it doesn’t go anywhere your ears aren’t expecting it to.
When Den fully embraces its influences, it sounds like a band I can really get behind. The drone, doom and blues all meld together to create a heavy and distinct beast. It’s when the band goes conventional that it loses its way a bit. This is a pity because these guys are definitely onto something when they abandon convention, blur everything together, and let rip. I’m not sure exactly what that “something” is, and I don’t think the band does, either, but I hope they continue to embrace their wilder, more experimental side and find out. Because that’s one crazy trip I’d love to take.