Located at the very tip of the African continent, South Africa may win the prize for ‘Most Accurate Country Name,’ challenged only by the uniformly low and flat Netherlands. Metal, however, is not what the nation is generally known for (apartheid and the guy who directed District 9 both rank higher, for instance.) In our extensive archives, only 9 articles bear a ‘South African Metal’ tag. Until today, that is, because Ruff Majik come forth from the shadows of Pretoria, the South African capital (raise your hands if you also thought it was Johannesburg…). The three-piece plays stoner-doom metal, as if it would be anything else with that moniker, with a bevy of psychedelic and blues twists. Despite the low quantity, though, South African metal has been uncommonly high quality, including the likes of Crow Black Sky, Vulvodynia, Mad God and Wildernessking. Can Ruff Majik stack up against the likes of them?
Well, they’re not quite there, but they certainly come close at times. Yet it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes Seasons so effective. One of the primary reasons is clearly frontman Johni Holiday, however, who handles guitars and vocals. His voice is of the ‘technically imperfect but preciously distinctive’ variety. The thin, high-pitched timbre and deliberately wavering delivery seem more at home in blues than metal. Indeed, closer “Asleep in the Leaves” serves to showcase his soft-spoken side with a serving of acoustic strumming before spinning out in spiraling solos. But if there’s one thing blues vocalists know how to do, it’s giving emotional heft to the music, and Holiday is nothing if not expressive. Ranging from cool bemusement to an energetic sludgy vibe, his charmingly unpolished vocals supply plenty of personality to the music.
Backing him is a range of riffs and hooks that stick around for days. There is great variety in their tone and tempo. The main riff on “Gone Down in the Woods Today” has a bouncy whimsicality, while its follow-up “Breathing Ghosts” bursts out of the gates with a strong Baroness-inspired tremolo riff. On the other hand is “The Deep Blue,” a slow and ominous track that swings between heavy rumbling riffs and blues-inspired plucked acoustics. The rhythm section, including a bass with a lovely, full sound that isn’t hidden away, specializes in off-beat rhythms that put a sense of swing in the music, most clearly showcased on “Last of the Witches” with its busy feet and bouncy feel.
The most significant quirk of Ruff Majik is the way their songs don’t feel like separate songs. Most of the tracks blend together, and with their frequent tempo changes, extended bridges and nontraditional structures, it can be hard to keep track of where one song ends and another begins. This gives the record a psychedelic feel, and like many such albums, Seasons works best when you lean back and let it all wash over you. This also works in the album’s favor because regardless of its qualities and charm, it’s still quite a rough record. The looseness of the vocals as well as the instrumentation are par for the course as far as stoner metal is concerned, but it does encompass plenty of imperfections. On top of that, the length is stretched considerably thanks to the hidden track-and-a-half after the closer, at a point where it was already pushing its limits. While it’s undeniably a good album, it can’t quite hold up for a full hour, and a few snips in the tracklisting might have made the whole more palatable.
But don’t let the slightly disappointing aftertaste keep you from consuming Seasons. Coming from a metallically challenged country, Ruff Majik put together an altogether charming take on stoner-doom metal. The slight quirkiness of the riffs and rhythm section coupled with the distinctive vocals bring the album together, and the smart mix between heavy grooves and energetic hooks get you to reach for repeat more than once. Though not as impactful as the heavy hitters from the opening paragraph, fans of idiosyncratic stoner should keep an eye on Ruff Majik.