The size of the role vocals play in genre categorization is a funny thing. At least superficially, harsh screams may be enough to earn a ‘blackened’ tag, and there’s more than one melodic death metal album that would be labelled power metal if it weren’t for the harsh vocals. This can cause a conundrum when a band wants to shake up the status quo with an unusual vocal approach. Enter Yatra, a new band formed after the dissolution of Blood Raven. This fuzzy stoner doom might not draw a second glance if it weren’t for its oddball application of harsh snarls. Is it gonna be enough to set themselves apart from the usual stoner-doom hullabaloo?
Instrumentally, the style is fairly familiar. Guitars layered in static and fuzz pounding through mid-to-low paced riffs with heft and swagger, workmanlike drumming without much fancy or flourish, and thumping bass with a rumbling twang. With all tracks between three and seven minutes, Yatra is not given to endless wandering, preferring a simple, straightforward structure to their songs. The vocals are the most remarkable element: a mixture of the more common sludgy burliness and an odd half-whispered, half-snarled black metal-influenced crowing with a dramatic quality that borders on the theatrical. It’s a choice way off the beaten path, that’s for sure, and would be in nearly any style sans experimental black metal; doubly so in this genre.
But it only works partially. While the vocal style suits the music surprisingly well and gives Yatra more personality than most bands in this genre, they’re notably uninspired when studied in isolation. Throughout the record, the cadence varies little, never reaching beyond medium in either pitch or tempo. Most of the variation is gleaned from changes in laryngeal distortion, but even that keeps well away from any extremes, and the lack of spotlighting by the mix makes such details hard to pick up on, and in addition, this removes any chance of catching more than the occasional whiff of lyrics. Without anything calling attention to the vocals, they rise above little more than the angry muttering of the racist uncle at the Christmas table who’s been told to shut up about Hannah’s black boyfriend.
With the vocal experiment petering out, Yatra has to fall back on that mainstay of anything stoner: the riffs. But woe betide, these too fall short of remarkable. Though not without merit entirely, the memorability of the riffage is below the mark, leaving very little that sticks in the craw. Several songs manage to impress, though, particularly the turbulent “Smoke is Rising” with its fuzz-laden solos and the lurching opener “Hour of the Dragon.” But even in those cases, I rarely caught myself humming the main riff between spins or waking up with it playing in my head. For an album that aims to be this direct, that does not signify adequate hooks, particularly at the level of exposure I attempt to achieve.
Death Ritual is not an exceptionally strong start to the year. Nor is it an exceptionally weak one. It’s overall pleasant listening material, with some interesting ideas that deserve to be fleshed out further. As a proof of concept, it’s not without merit, and Yatra’s approach to vocals deserves to be explored. But it needs a robust execution and riffs that can hammer the point home. In these departments, Death Ritual falls short, creating lethargy where energy should reign, and leaving holes in memories where hooks fail to attach. I’m curious to see whether the band can take the prototype further, but as it stands, this album does not qualify as a groundbreaking debut.