Of the wavelengths split from heavy metal’s prism, doom is the color that can most clearly trace its path back to Black Sabbath. Down-tuned riffs, fuzzed-out solos and a bottom end that would make Sir Mix-a-lot dab the sweat from his brow, today’s doom acts unabashedly carry the flame first lit by Messrs Iommi, Ward, Butler and Osborne. The danger in this familiarity is that some bands struggle to escape their progenitor’s orbit and end up as pale imitators rather than carving out a space of their own. Although this self-titled album is their debut, Wretch are not new to the scene as singer/guitarist Karl Simon previously played in The Gates of Slumber, whose 2008 album Conqueror impressed me. Can Wretch do more than merely worship at the temple of Sabbath? Can they preach?
Before we get into a blow-by-blow account of the album proper, I want to discuss the notion of loss. Many if not all of us have felt the passing of a loved one. Feelings of despair, anger, regret and incredulity wrack the senses, leaving one numb and hollow. Everyone deals with the emptiness in their own way. For some, pouring one’s sorrow into a work of art serves as a cathartic release for the soul and veneration for one we never want to forget. Wretch is how Simon decided to deal with his grief after the passing of ex-The Gates of Slumber bassist Jason McCash in 2014. Taking its name in part from The Gates of Slumber’s last album, The Wretch, Wretch eschews the Dungeons ‘n’ Dragons trappings in favor of a darkly introspective tone befitting one deep in mourning. While I feel art should stand on its own merits and not rely on the crutches of circumstance, outlining the environment in which it was created can serve to add proper context.
Opener “Running out of Days” is a pretty straight-forward number with chug-a-chug riffs that bring to mind The Obsessed. Simon’s vocals occupy a space somewhere in between Witchcraft’s Magnus Pelander and Monster Magnet’s Dave Wyndorf. It’s a solid, no-surprises affair that doesn’t outstay its welcome but neither does it rouse the blood. The next track “Rest in Peace” allows the band to stretch its muscles a bit more, offering some effective chord progression and a tasty solo reminiscent of Gaz Jennings of Cathedral fame. In fact, the entire song reminds me of the British doom stalwarts (my hand written notes for this song include “Cathedral as fuck!”) an observation that extends to many other parts of the album. “Winter,” a brief psychedelic track that makes one feel as if their atoms are unraveling across the lip of a black hole’s event horizon, continues on in this vein.
Every doom album is bound by ancient law to include at least one long crushing epic and “Icebound” delivers the goods. It starts slow, building a dirty, feedback-heavy riff that loops as it increases in volume until the song properly begins at the 2-minute mark. From here it incorporates elements from not only the aforementioned Cathedral and Black Sabbath, but also Saint Vitus and a bit of Bloody Hammers just for good measure. This is easily the best track on the album, bold and confident with some outstanding performances from drummer Chris Gordon and bassist Bryce Clarke. Closer “Drown” does a great job of tying its subject matter to the music, blending slow, spiraling chords with haunting, watery vocals that left me gasping for air.
As good as some of the tracks on the album are, Wretch is not without its faults. For one, it hews too closely to well-worn doom tropes, playing things safe thus starving the music of originality. Secondly the album is rather short, 33-minutes spread over 7 songs. That’s not necessarily a fatal flaw provided you make every second count but when two of the tracks are instrumentals and only one of them is particularly interesting (“Bloodfinger”) you end up with an audience lamenting over what could have been rather than being hungry for more.
On the production side the album is well mixed, and despite the rather anemic dynamic range the overall sound is pleasantly organic with instruments clearly delineated and vocals that are not buried underneath a wall of fuzz.
I enjoyed my time with Wretch but its by-the-numbers, comfort-food approach to doom makes it difficult for it to escape the shadow of the classic albums by the genre’s greats. Simon hopefully found solace in returning to what he knows best. Whether that’s enough for everybody else will be up for the individual to decide for themselves.