This may be a scandalous admission in this hallowed Hall, but metal was not my first musical love. Pre-internet Nebraska farm country wasn’t a place where such music could be accessed, though there were other kinds close at hand. When I was seven, my father went into town, sold a cow and came back with the most anticipated musical recording of my young life: the first Highwaymen album. Cash’s imperfect baritone and Nelson’s reedy tenor were already the most recognizable voices in my world, and that album by Johnny, Willie, Waylon and the guy from the Blade movies was on constant playback, usually at my request. Those outlaw country seeds planted in my young mind grew branches through the years, as I chased darker “folk” strains from Delta blues to gothic Americana. This last category especially has forced me to expand my musical Mt Rushmore to accommodate busts of Bill Callahan, Will Oldham, Jason Molina and David Eugene Edwards. Now, up the dusty trail riding a pale horse comes Austin, Texas’ Lord Buffalo to throw their hat into the spectral ring of fire, boldly submitting promo to a strict metal site where I lie in wait to judge them. Is there a new sheriff in town?
Tohu Wa Bohu, a Hebrew phrase found in Genesis describing the Earth as “formless and empty” before the creation of light, is the second album from this Texan quartet, and it’s chock full of earthy darkness. First track “Raziel” creaks into the world sounding like a lost track from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis‘ The Proposition soundtrack crossed with Low Estate era 16 Horsepower. There are plenty of Cave vibes all over Tohu Wa Bohu, which is fitting, as the legendary Australian was famously obsessed with Americana early in his career. The morbid spirit and skeletal, echoey sound of his songs “Muddy Water” and “Tupelo” are strongly conjured in mid-album cuts “Dog Head” and “Halle Barry,” for instance. Lord Buffalo use these touchstones, as well as stomping percussion and psychedelic blues riffs to build deeply moody compositions with an atmosphere both stark and drowsy.
There’s a cinematic scope to the instrumentation across Tohu Wa Bohu. Simple piano and bass lines layer with haunted fiddles on tracks like “Wild Hunt,” while guitars recall Neil Young‘s tautly troubling score to Dead Man on “Halle Berry.” Like that Jarmuch film, Lord Buffalo make psychologically fraught art-house westerns with each song, and narrating the ponderous action is the dour crooning of singer Daniel Jesse Pruitt. Though mostly living in the woozy baritone range with echo affects adding to the dreamlike quality, Pruitt occasionally puts just enough emotional urgency into a line here (“Dog Head”) or a chorus there (“Kenosis”) to cut through the veil of haze. As the drawn-out chorus of “Come show me hoooooooow to see” dissolves into the layered line “Hold it, hold it in, hold it in your mind” over the psychedelic stomp at the end of “Tohu Wa Bohu,” it’s clear that Pruitt is the conductor of this ghost train, and his destination is internal and abstract.
If there’s a weakness to Tohu Wa Bohu, it’s not in the music, which is expertly crafted, but in the conceit. Every song, every moment, every instrumental flair hits a sweet spot of tropes that I’m admittedly a sucker for, but I can identify them all as something outside of Lord Buffalo. Along with the name drops above, one can clearly hear the demonic doo-wop of Timber Timbre in “Heart of the Snake” and Damien Jurado‘s fractured indie folk in “Kenosis.” On their sophomore release, these Texans are a beautiful melange of everything that has worked for other artists in their genre, but what’s lacking is their unique voice. Each of the artists listed above can be identified by the smallest of song fragments played at random because they are always themselves, despite their influences. Right now, Lord Buffalo sound skillfully, lovingly, successfully like other, admittedly great, artists.
In the end, this doesn’t matter one bit as it pertains to my enjoyment of the record. I will gladly spin Tohu Wa Bohu whenever the mood strikes and eagerly watch for future releases. But my hope is that on future records, Lord Buffalo mature toward a unique voice, so that when I’m recommending music in this vein to others, I can point to them instead of others who did it first.