It’s not easy to stand apart these days, especially when it comes to stoner metal. You can change up vocal styles as much as humanly possible, throw as many outside musical influences that your songs can handle, and go off the deep end lyrically to the point of needing either a severe dry-out period or even a full-on intervention from friends, family, and various loved ones. The fact remains that stoner metal, when you take a good, hard look at it, hasn’t evolved much, and it’s getting harder and harder to do something new. Which is fine, because we kinda like it like that, and it’s metal’s most dependable, reliable source for all things heavy and groovy. Subtle, the fifth album by Columbus, Ohio’s Lo-Pan, looks to stand out from the pack with some off-kilter rhythms and alt-rock hooks, as well as incredible vocals by talented frontman Jeff Martin. Sometimes, though, being different isn’t always the same as being good.
Thankfully, Subtle doesn’t have this problem. “10 Days,” in stark contrast to the rest of Subtle, shows a more subdued approach by Martin, allowing bassist Skot Thompson, drummer Jesse Bartz, and new guitarist Chris Thompson1 to march in groovy lockstep with one another. Sometimes, it’s best not to show how heavy you can go or how thick your hooks are, but rather showcase the urge to just rock the fuck out with a good riff and rhythm section, and “10 Days” provides just that. Not a bad set-up for a road-trip-ready album of heavy proportions!
And Chris Thompson’s ear and touch for a good hook is in no short supply. Album standout “Khan” welcomes the listener back to Sky Valley, paying tribute to the long-lost Kyuss with some incredible riffs and soaring vocals by Martin. “Old News” starts off with an old-timey, almost jazzy feel before launching into a near-Helmet groove, punctuated again by Martin’s soulful howl and a great groove by Skot and Bartz. Elsewhere, “Savage Heart” saunters with a groove not unlike modern-day Life of Agony, but with some off-kilter rhythm syncopation to keep the listener on their toes. While this is still undeniably stoner metal at its core, there’s enough unique ideas thrown at it to keep things fresh and interesting, something I wish more bands incorporated into their formulas.
The James Brown production sounds and feels beefy, as the bass is thick without being overpowering, the drums punch without too much distortion, and the guitars fit nicely into a chunky pocket. One drawback I’ve found with Subtle, and it’s a fairly big one, is the band’s need to end a song just as things begin to take an interesting turn. “10 Days” and especially “Bring Me a War” both hint at some really stellar riffs and grooves, but suddenly just end when things are about to get interesting. While Subtle runs at a tight 48 minutes, I have no problems with a song running longer, especially if it’s heading somewhere intriguing. I normally don’t say that, folks, but Subtle throws enough curveballs to freshen things up.
And that’s just it in a nutshell. It doesn’t do everything new so much as it does enough new to make a record exciting and interesting, without changing the framework into something unrecognizable. Lo-Pan, besides making me want to watch Big Trouble in Little China for the millionth time, stand out not only because of how different they’re trying to be with their hooks and melodies, but how well they use them. Wheels may not need reinvention, but constant improvements are always welcome. Much like Torche and newcomers Haze Mage, Lo-Pan deliver the goods just fine with enough to stand out among a crowded field. Subtle, this ain’t.