There are one-man bands and there are one-man bands. Via Vengeance is the latter. Shane Ocell is not only the sole-instrumentalist of this Arizona-based doom band, but also performs guitar, drums, and vocals simultaneously. Yep, you heard me. The Via Vengeance live experience consists of Ocell sitting behind a kit, chugging away on a guitar, and belting out vicious incantations through his monitors. For this reason, Ocell’s songwriting is simplistic, proving that doom can be done well without over-the-top epicness. Not one to keep the live-experience from the fans, Ocell plays in the studio as he does in the local dive bar; with all instruments in-hand and underfoot, and a physically-abused mic at his disposal. Being preoccupied with his drum duties for Phoenix-based Sarxe, Ocell has not released a Via Vengeance record in nearly a decade. While 2007’s Dieography was a beautiful mix of stripped-down drone and crushing doom, the wait for Harsh Conditions has been well worth it.
For those keeping score, you’ve probably noticed my references to “Arizona” and “Phoenix,” yet your eyes are automatically drawn to (and your brain confused by) the album cover above. While a snow-covered album may seem oxymoronic to anyone that has ever stepped foot in the seething shithole that is Phoenix, Ocell actually hails from the mountainous, frozen north (Colorado to us Arizonans). So, I suppose, he knows a little something about tough winters. Harsh Conditions is not only “harsh” in delivery, but its image symbolizes the depressing conditions of life. Winter is bleak and one-dimensional, and its cold, dark nature leaves many people feeling lonely and depressed with its simplistic presence. Harsh Conditions is the auditory medium for those emotions; conveying the bleakness of life on an hour-long, eleven-track disc.
“Efficient Kill” is a raw, straightforward opener that hints to the listener the type of journey we are about to embark on. Ocell’s vocals are meaner than the desperate, hardcore-ish vox found on Dieography, and the tough-as-nails recording of Harsh Conditions makes the debut feel almost happy-go-lucky. The raw production mixed with beautiful clean guitars and female vox works best in tracks like “Swarmed,” “Lust Blood,” and “Solitary.” Each of these songs has intensely aggressive choruses, midsection builds that strengthen the songs (and album), and an overall atmosphere that bleeds anger, depression, and loneliness into the listener’s heart. Each of these little journeys transition from a main riff into slow buildup created by the chugging guitars and accelerating pedal rapping. The builds finally break into powerful climaxes and the songs effectively conclude.
Along with the powerful tracks mentioned above, the album is rounded out beautifully by the inclusion of three instrumentals: “Winter Mourning,” “Harsh Conditions,” and “In the End Nothing Goes to Waste.” The first delivers some eerie keys and haunting female vocals (both courtesy of Ocell’s grandmother), while the latter two utilize piano and keys to intermit and close the album, respectively. With this stripped-down songwriting approach, these breaks in the album keep Harsh Conditions from feeling overly repetitive or droney.
Harsh Conditions requires a few listens to absorb the music and the message, but the flow from track-to-track works quite well. Unfortunately, the album takes awhile to get rolling (fault falling to “Efficient Kill” and “Expired”). And the powerful builds in “Dead in the Snow” and “Solitary” leave me wanting a little more at their climax (something the very Triptykon-like “Instinct to Survive” nails perfectly). The dynamics may not impress, but the mastering decision was clearly intentional and, actually, quite effective. With a recording representative of the Ocell’s live performance, the album is obviously geared to emotional listeners and not audiophiles. As the icing to the cake, the artwork by “Dead in the Snow” guest guitarist/vocalist Josh Graham (A Storm of Light, ex-Neurosis) uses visual imagery to strengthen the album’s auditory one. Harsh Conditions is a simple, stripped down journey that reminds you that winter is far from over.
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 128 kbps mp3