Reviewing a band for the first time is a very different affair from reviewing a band whose work has passed my hands before. In the former case, it largely feels like reviewing the band itself, since in my perception I am holding the band’s entire body of work (which is the case with debuts, though not otherwise). In the latter case, it’s more akin to chronicling the way a band is evolving, or in some cases, devolving over the years. And the more reviews I write, the more I run into the latter case. South African fuzzlords Ruff Majik are an example of these, as I got to air my opinion on their debut full-length Seasons almost exactly a year ago. Despite the divisive vocals, I enjoyed their laid-back take on psychedelic stoner metal, and so I decided to take on their sophomore album in good spirits.
Tårn is quite a different beast from the fluffier, more expansive Seasons. It’s dirtier, darker and much, much heavier, leaping into doom territory with both feet. The riffs are grimy, yet catchy, and the past year has evidently granted much growth in the songwriting department. The album is tighter, more cohesive, and at less than 40 minutes in length is devoid of filler. The thundering Cathedral vibe is offset only by the vocals, which will likely remain a divisive issue with their nasal high pitch. Though I still appreciate the classic rock vibe afforded by Johni Holiday, who displays an almost Robert Plant-like timbre (though nowhere near that technical skill and control), his voice doesn’t suit the heavier sound as well as it did on the debut. Nonetheless, the excellent, stomping riffs in and of themselves are a big leap ahead for the Pretoria trio, while they retain their dynamic approach, giving the heaviness room to breathe with quieter passages.
But OOF, is the production rough. Whereas the calmer, airier debut could get away with some compression issues, the riffs here are crushed and flattened severely by a master so dense and lo-fi it almost reverts back to mono. The drums sound like a stack of wet cardboard boxes, the cymbals like they come from a My First Drumkit set (ages 3-8, may contain small parts.) The mix is thankfully a little better, with the bass receiving enough attention to retain some depth to the music, though the compression doesn’t leave it much wiggle room once the guitars kick in. Though we’ve had plenty of comments disparaging our focus on production, not always without merit, this muffled and muddy sound quality truly is a major issue here that severely impacts the enjoyability of the record.
And damn if that isn’t a goddamned waste, because Tårn is full of great material. Opener “Schizophrenic” trips you up with a tremolo intro before kicking off an energetically swinging riff. “I’ll Dig the Grave” dynamically switches between rocking doom ‘n roll verses and Sabbathian choruses, with ample blues influence and a thrumming, ominous atmosphere, to which closer “Seasoning the Witch” returns as well. “Dread Breath” plays with a riff that lives next door to Mastodon‘s “Steambreather” but gets both faster and heavier than that. But the production has the unfortunate consequence of making the proceedings less dynamic and more uniform, even though there is plenty of variation in the songwriting.
Believe me, I do feel bad about not being able to score this one higher. Though it’s pretty much a given that any band is passionate about what they do, something Ruff Majik displays in spades, there is also plenty of talent for solid and varied songcraft to go around, with some great riffs and atmosphere. I’m willing to bet they would kill in a live setting, where production isn’t an issue, with their balanced mix of rollicking groove and headbangable riffs. Yet I realize that good quality production is not always easy or affordable to come by, particularly in a less metal-oriented country like South Africa, and may be partially out of hands of the band. Yet I can only judge Tårn by its end product: an excellent piece of groovy stoner doom that got mangled in the recording process.