Stoner rock is one of those genres where it’s hard to put into words what separates the great records from the tediously competent. What is it that makes Kyuss’ Welcome to Sky Valley or Sleep’s Dopesmoker nigh-on perfect records, while another album with all the same constituents just barely scrapes a 2.0? Well, as I say, it’s hard to put into words but, possibly because of its close relationship with the blues, great stoner has a ‘feel’ to it, a ‘know it, when you hear it’ quality. Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Lamassu emerge from what appears to be a thriving stoner sludge scene and features members from a number of other bands, including Motherslug, who managed to drag a 4.0 out of Master ov Muppets for their sophomore effort, The Electric Dunes of Titan. In summing up his praise, the Muppetty one enthused that “these Aussies managed to make 44 minutes of doomy goodness fly by so deceptively quickly.” Clocking in at 56 minutes, can the same be said for Lamassu’s self-released debut, Into the Empty, or are they just running on empty?
Into the Empty has all the components you’d expect to find on a solid sludgy stoner rock record, roiling bluesy riffs, prominent chugging bass and big, full-sounding drums, with clean, rangy vocals over the top. As to the latter, Lamassu bill vocalist (and guitarist) Chris Fisher as having “almost ‘Cornell-ian’ reach and delivery.” That’s one hell of a claim, and one which, predictably enough, Fisher cannot live up to. He’s decent enough on mic duties and is well supported by lead guitarist Matt Dawkins on backing vocals, but Chris Cornell he ain’t. Lamassu open the album with the worryingly-titled “Chokehold Companion,” a song that sees Fisher doing a solid Mark Lanegan impression over some mid-paced stoner rock, while second track “Flow” is all Alice in Chains grunge, both musically and in lyrical themes also. And that is rather how Into the Empty continues, in that it reminds me of a number of great records and artists (another being Place of Skulls in their early days with Wino still on board, which is evoked by “Control”), without hitting the heights of any of their influences, nor nailing their own identity.
Indeed, it’s not until the penultimate track that Lamassu suddenly find their stride and deliver on the promise that has been lurking in the wings for almost 38 minutes. “Under the Watch of a Crow” opens with a towering stoner groove that builds toward, and finally gives way to, a languid, dreamy blues-inspired middle section, all wailing leads and hypnotic rhythms, before Lamassu crank it back up to close out the song. And last track on Into the Empty, “I Die,” is similarly impressive, opening with a Mondo Generator-worthy bass-led groove that gradually slows to a sludgy almost-crawl in the face of walls of feedback and Motherslug’s Nick Rad’s slow motion fury behind the drumkit.1
It’s a shame that Lamassu fail to match the consistency and songcraft they show on these two tracks across the rest of the record, though. All the musicians involved clearly know what they are doing but they have turned out a curiously workmanlike album that feels all the more so because of its nearly-hour-long runtime. While there are flashes of quality across Into the Empty, it largely fails to deliver on undeniable promise. “Control” sees a few tasty bluesy leads from Dawkins, while “Failed” starts off in broody, melodic stoner mood, reverb on overdrive and a throaty, whiskey-soaked croon from Fisher before it tamely wanders off into generic, mid-paced stoner riffing. All aspects of Into the Empty are competent without anything really excelling, and this includes the production, which gives Lamassu a rough-edged, full sound, that allows the guitars space to breathe and the rhythm section the sort of muddy quality one expects from sludgy stoner rock, but the sound on show isn’t setting any worlds alight.
Unlike Motherslug’s Dunes, Into the Empty feels every one of its 56 minutes and, comprising musicians from Motherslug and Borrachero – both bands that have put out some seriously good material – among others, I can’t help but think Lamassu sound a bit lacklustre. Not in a laid-back stoner sort of way but more a they’re-mailing-it-in kinda way. Into the Empty is not entirely devoid of quality, but the needle is closer to the red than it is to full.