I’ve made it no secret that I don’t love doom metal so much as respect it from a sizable distance, but certain acts have been known to prompt genuine affection. My criteria for good doom is admittedly opaque, with my two favorite albums of this decade residing in opposite ends of the genre’s sonic spectrum, but I think it boils down to a general feeling of genuineness. If you’re going to fuck around with pretentious atmospherics against a backdrop of flaccid, groove-less riffs, you’ll get no respect from me. It’s really all about the heart, with ingenuity being secondary to pure fun and overflowing emotion. And that’s where Toronto, Ontario’s Smoulder, and the excellently titled Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring1, come in. Its condensed epics, while familiar in feel, are earnest and entertaining, even if they don’t quite match the heights of Smoulder‘s contemporaries.
With this debut, Smoulder finds a sturdy balance between classic epic doom and the accessible, melodic sorrow of Khemmis. This aesthetic proves reliable for them in a variety of scenarios, as Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring is surprisingly diverse. Instances of marching, steadfast doom (“Ilian of Garathorm, “Sword Woman”), Motörhead inspired speed (“Bastard Steel,”), and traditional heavy metal drives (“Voyage of the Sunchaser”) make an appearance, all equally elevated by the fantastic vocal work of Sarah Ann. Bolstered by just the right amount of reverb, her presence as a commanding vocal force is second to none in the genre. She effortlessly pivots from wicked sneers to emotionally arresting croons at the drop of a hat, providing the sort of unique personality necessary in a style packed with bands starved for personal identity.
Aside from the excellent singing performances, little makes Smoulder unique. Yes, other bands in this style manage to soar without a hint of invention, but when it comes to executing the expected tropes, Smoulder is largely good, not great. This isn’t to say that Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring is without standout moments; the quirky tremolo riffs of “Shadowy Sisterhood,” my personal favorite cut, showcase the sort of instrumental initiative this record needs more of. On the whole, however, the riffs and lead performances feel merely adequate, leaving a noticeable gap in quality between the guitars and vocals. Not even Sarah Ann can save the conclusory track “Black God’s Kiss,” however – a plodding and overlong composition defined by awkward power chord progressions. If the rest of the record weren’t so thoroughly likable, this uncharacteristically deficient track might have single-handedly dragged its score down by a half point.
That’s the important thing to remember here: Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring is still quite likable. Aside from the aforementioned “Black God’s Kiss,” no part of this record can really be called a failure, its massive choruses imbuing it with an undeniably addictive quality. Its replay factor is further supported by its abbreviated run-time, clocking in at a breezy thirty-seven minutes. While the album’s sound is competent, it’s all too easy to imagine a much better sounding version. Despite the band’s sparse instrumentation, Smoulder‘s bassist is somehow buried deep beneath the guitars, and the drums fail to pop in the mix. I love the vocal reverb, and the tones are authentically retro, but the modern flattening of the mix is disheartening.
I’m obviously behind schedule with this review, and with it arriving late to publication, I’ve witnessed quite a bit of early release buzz surrounding Times of Obscene Evil and Wild Daring. While I’m not quite as impressed as most people singing its praises, I still count myself a passenger on the hype train. This is especially true because it’s so easy to imagine Smoulder evolving from a good band into a great one. All the pieces for their success are already in place, and if they can redirect some of their vibrant energy into stronger riffs and more consistently sturdy composition, it’ll undoubtedly result in a phenomenal sophomore record. Until that day, this debut makes for a wholly worthwhile listen, and the sort of diverse doom record that should effortlessly reach across genre lines to win over traditional metal fans of all stripes.