I’ve never been big on punk. Once in a blue moon, the mood might hit me and I spin some Social Distortion or Dead Kennedys but it’s never gotten beyond that point. It’s rarely on my mind either, so rather than an active dislike, it’s simply a blank spot on my list of genres. With this established it should stand to reason that upon reviewing retro heavy/doom metal outfit Devil, the lightbulb for punk shouldn’t even flicker. Yet, early into To the Gallows, the third album by the Norsemen, the bulb was glowing bright enough to cast shadows on the walls. This in spite of the sound being closer to Witchfinder General and Pentagram than Sex Pistols. Strange the connections our minds make.
One thing proto-doom and punk have in common, besides body odor and distorted guitars, is a no-frills approach to songwriting, something Devil embody to a T. Most of the tracks have two riffs: one for the verses, one for the chorus. Repeat four or eight times, chuck a solo into the middle, and it’s done. This is not a complaint: the stark songwriting and absence of window dressing give the band a sense of authenticity, teasing visions of a couple of students getting together after school to rock out in a garage with shitty equipment and maximum attitude. There’s something refreshing about stripping away the bells and whistles and focusing solely on rocking out to good riffs. Mostly this approach works well: the title track and “Dead Body Arise” are great simple fun, and the introduction to “Regulators” sounds downright inspired. This approach requires more energy than a number of songs can provide, however, and slower tracks like “David & Goliath” tend to fall flat. When Devil powers down, the minimalism leads to malnourishment and the aforementioned song feels six minutes long without breaking the 4:00 mark.
Looking at the performances, I think it’s the vocals that trigger my punk bells, more so than the songwriting. Devil regularly use trade-off and gang-shout vocals in major keys, especially in the choruses, with “Peasants & Pitchforks” and “Jumping Off the Edge of Time” recalling the “whoooaa” that made Pennywise the most-sung punk band in football stadiums. The vocals tread a strange dichotomy between lack of variation in the gruff-light delivery but still coming across as vibrant on most songs, particularly the quicker ones, due to a casually off-tempo delivery that recalls drunk pirates and revolting peasants. Unfortunately, they lean to the uneven side overall, becoming unconvincingly tentative when the music does not give them enough to do. The line between playful banter and drunken rambling is toed dangerously sometimes, and it harms the attempts at playing songs that should be a shade darker.
The instrumental section is more solid, thankfully. The riffcraft is admirable and the guitars are self-assured and have all the hooks of a strip of velcro. The drumming is generally perfunctory, but small fills keep the riffs from petering out after the fourth repetition. The bass is a standout element, boosting and harmonizing with the guitars to good effect. Being able to hear it in the first place certainly helps a great deal, but it’s the sole commendable aspect of the production. The vocals are too high in the mix, the guitars could have used more body, and the mastering is too loud and too flat, riddled with clipping and robbing the album of that much-needed retro cred.
To the Gallows is a decidedly mixed bag. For every good riff, there’s a vocal gaffe. For every bit of dull repetition, there’s a bassline that makes up for it. For every tasteful drum-fill, there’s clipping in the master. The melding of retro doom with an almost jolly punk attitude works, but a shortage of truly convincing material hampers the admirably stark songwriting. Devil could be onto something here, but small mistakes and slip-ups pop up too often to make a dent in the retro doom market. When the tunes are all about simple riffs with minimal frills, consistency is key, and To the Gallows is too inconsistent to recommend, despite sporting some fun tunes.