Distortion and metal are so closely connected it’s difficult to see them separated at all. Yes, there are some bands who don’t utilize distortion, primarily in the power metal section of the mall, and yes, there are artists that use distortion without being primarily metal. However, by and large, metal means distorted guitars. There’s a reason many agree that metal was invented when Black Sabbath introduced that evil guitar tone to the world. Dunbarrow, however, see it as a challenge to be heavy like Sabbath without layering on the distortion, and to this end they look toward the forebears of our genre, evident in the luxurious lapping at the puddles of the 70s with their sophomore album, inspirationally titled II.
Present day, one of the more oft-overlooked heroes of 70s classic rock was Uriah Heep, whose progressive fantasy-oriented rock, so prone to flights of fancy, inspired a Bulgarian tradition that continues to this day1. Dunbarrow come from an alternate universe where someone wrote an entire Black Sabbath album, replete with horror themes, and gave the sheets to Uriah Heep instead. Frontman Espen Andersen has much in common with David Byron, the vocalist that led Heep to their biggest hits, in both timbre and delivery, with an almost folk-inspired storytelling quality. The instrumentation, though discarding Heep‘s ever-present keyboards, have a similarly clean sound, minimizing distortion in favor of clarity and melodious intent. Yet structurally, the tunes shirk closer to Sabbath, with a heavy focus on earthy riffs, downtrodden tempos and a gloomy attitude, telling stories of ghosts (“Please Let Me Be”,) werewolves (“The Wolf”) and witchcraft (“Witches of the Woods”.)
Thanks to the band’s singular vision, this combination works quite well, too. II oozes comfort with the classic sound of the proto-metal era. The songs are never highfalutin or overly ambitious, focusing on consistent songcraft instead. It’s a parade of solid hooks, from the ominous trilling of opener “On Your Trail” to the addictive bounce of “The Wolf.” The clean guitar sound works well in this regard, showing off the melodious compositions with crisp definition, and even the string bending fits the emulated era perfectly. The bass echoes underneath, adding weight to the atmosphere, best described as a cheeky gloom. The songs are kept simple and to the point, almost barebones in their lack of embellishments, and though this means jaws remain firmly undropped, I can admire the workmanlike quality of its execution.
There is a downside to proto-metal in general, and it’s one Dunbarrow can’t completely avoid. By definition, it all hearkens back to sounds we’ve heard before. As such, II doesn’t surprise much, and doesn’t escape the shadow of its predecessors. But in its defense, it doesn’t try to; everything here screams of homage to that era, including the production. The fact that I can’t tell for sure whether this was an analog or digital recording should say enough; the master is infused with resplendent dynamics and a healthy, ‘live in the studio’ fuzziness, while still providing perfect clarity to all participants and retaining a consistently good mix. The bass has punch and the vocals are not overpoweringly loud.
There is certainly beauty in simplicity. Considering our local appreciation for ‘less is more,’ this is no surprise. Dunbarrow’s brand of stripped-down proto-doom knows this too. II is a modest record, never attempting to blow you away with bells and whistles, not trying to drown you in layers of reverb and distortion. Its clean, retro sound can be summarized in a curt manner as minimized as its songcraft: simple tracks with good riffs played well. If that description appeals to you, and you have a heart for the old school, there’s no reason not to add Dunbarrow to your collection.