“All things old become new again.“
The above statement holds much truth for metal. Our beloved musical genre is ever-obsessed with looking backward for inspiration1. We’ve been battered by rethrash since the early aughts, and the whole trve metal thing is an invasive, difficult to eradicate species. Death metal is now (always) looking back to its primordial roots, and basements across the world have countless Vardans, cranking out lo-fi black metal with unquenchable Transilvanian hunger. The “occult rock” phenomenon is yet another time capsule blasting backward to poach the treasures of the distant past. Avatarium went from retro doom to 60s rock in the span of 3 albums, and over their own 3 album run, Jess and the Ancient Ones took the yellow submarine from occult 70s rock/metal to what they’ve become on The Horse and Other Weird Tales – tripped out 60s hippie rock with nary a metal influence to be found. A shorter trip to be sure, but no less regressive, The Horse is loaded with nods to The Doors and Jefferson Airplane, but manages to retain much of the band’s off-kilter personality. But does the lava lamp still burn?
Thankfully, it does. Despite a more permanent relocation to the era of flower power, cults and free love, Jess and the Ancient Ones still deliver high-octane music with plenty of weird quirks and enigmatic charm. Opener “Death is the Doors” is an amusingly titled number loaded as it is with nods to The Doors and their organ-cetric style. Imagine that classic band at their peak with Janis Joplin replacing Jim Morrison and you should get an idea of what to expect. Cuts like “Shining” and “Your Exploding Heads” rock hard but stay safely within the confines of the 60s sound. The writing is tight yet adventurous, with short 2-3 minute songs, but music running all over the place in the allotted time.
The Horse has 2 longer tracks where the band gets to explore their psychedelic ideations more fully. “You and Eyes” delivers a codswallop of emotion and power courtesy of a knockout performance from Jess. She takes us from smoky, sultry cabaret singing to unhinged, Janis Joplin on acid and Red Bull outbursts, blowing listener’s minds and showcasing the band’s playful inventiveness. Add some outstanding keyboards and beautiful guitar-work and you have a real doozy of a tune. 8-minute album closer “Anyway the Minds Flow” is a more edgy, volatile ride, with constantly shifting moods and emotions, but it works, benefiting from the uneasy marriage of melody and lunacy. This is Sybil-core and it definitely keeps one on their toes.
Downsides? Though there isn’t a weak track present, some of the songs are too brief, amounting to mere interludes. Also, the prevalent and oddball samples can become a distraction. Considering the album’s 35 minute length, time is of the essence and the extraneous fluff takes up space better left for the music. Sound-wise the biggest issue is the over-prominence of the keyboards in the mix. Though things are generally well balanced, Keys tend to dwarf and drown out the guitar when the music get busy.
As with the previous albums, Jess and her rich, diverse vocals are the main attraction. The lady can belt and belt she does. She manages to sound plausibly stuck in the 60s, but the sheer power of her voice sometimes elevates the music back toward modern day metal aesthetics. After Jess comes the flood (of keyboards). The keys often function in the “lead guitar” role and there are a lot of organ noodles and fills here. At times this can become too much of a good thing. Sole guitarist, Thomas Corpse is an understated team player, but he has a knack for nuanced and interesting grooves and leads, playing off the keys with lively riff patterns. His solo-work can be quite emotive, and I wish there was more opportunities for him to cut loose.
The Horse and Other Weird Tales isn’t quite as wondrous as Second Psychedelic Coming, and it’s definitely more lost in the past than ever, but the band retains their unique charm, vibrancy and writing chops. If you enjoy what Avatarium is currently doing, you’ll likely enjoy this as well. The 60s may not be coming back, but if that’s where you left your heart, mind or wallet, Jess and the Ancient Ones will be there to help you find them. Come for the rock, stay for the white rabbit.