A big, bearded pheonix arises from the ashes of the sadly missed Taint.
Careerism is sometimes an unfairly derided thing in music. Artistic ambition and making something of a living from your work shouldn’t really be mutually exclusive, but making a pitch for people’s wallets is often seen as being a bit crass. Ideally we’d like our artists to roll out of bed and create things casually while deciding what to have for breakfast rather than knuckling down and Getting Shit Done to pay the bills. There’s something about the actual mechanics of making things that takes the magic away from them. They say there are two things you should never see how they are made: laws and sausages. You could probably add artistic endeavour to this list – people who aren’t actually involved the creative process themselves would do well to keep from peeking behind the curtain.
I say this because, in the best possibly way, Crystalline oozes effort and dedication. Although I’m loathe to ascribe mental processes to people I’ve never met it feels like the work of guys who damn well want to get theirs. If that is indeed the case you have to feel sympathy for them – Jimbob Isaacs was in Taint for 16 years, touring relentlessly and releasing a couple of pretty damn good albums that never got the exposure they deserved. I saw them myself several times supporting a variety of stoner rock luminaries at the Sheffield Corporation – it seemed if there was ever a support slot available Taint would be on it in a heartbeat. Sadly they joined the graveyard of excellent British rock/metal bands that never quite reached a level they deserved a few years back – we just don’t treat them well here. They have to head to the continent or the states and make a few waves to get any kind of traction. It’s a sad state of affairs.
Anyhow, Isaacs’ is back with Hark – and it feels like Shit Just Got Real. There’s a level of craft on display that make the toil-happy Taint look like slouches. They’ve added a few new influences to the Taint palette – particularly that sort of chin-stroking metal-for-thinking-folks from the US over the past decade, the likes of Mastodon, Torche, Kylesa, Baroness et al. You can detect those just from looking at the gorgeous cover, designed by Isaacs himself, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of fellow band leader/artist/beard wearer John Baizley of Baroness. It’s a fitting place to draw inspiration – those are bands who also work in a peculiar, unnamed place in the metal spectrum (sometimes labelled sludge for reasons I’ve never understood) and who are famed for their elbow grease and relentless drive almost as much as their musical output. Accusations of band wagonery would be misplaced however – there are plenty of other influences at work as well – a bit of Melvins here, some Helmet there, Karma to Burn, mid-90s hardcore, prog etc. And Hark pull of that ever impressive trick of drawing deep from many a well and coming up with a brew which is singularly theirs. Though there are moments when an influence becomes apparent enough for a lightbulb moment they never feel beholden to anyone elses sound. What they’ve created is a hefty bricolage all of their own. At it’s it’s core it feels like they’ve taken what Taint did, strapped rockets to it and pointed it at the stars.
When it came to labelling Taint, for lack of anything more accurate, people often plumped for ‘Stoner Rock’ (often touring with much more generic stoner fair probably aided and abetted this) and you can see Hark getting similar treatment. It goes without saying that it’s a riff-heavy affair (I overuse the word ‘riff’ on an almost addict-level at the best of times – I nearly overdosed on the first draft of this review) but unlike most stoner bands they don’t readily descend into cliché. There’s no lyrics about being baked or how trippy space is, they aren’t called Bongfeast and they haven’t attempted to win the prize for one millionth rewrite of Children of the Grave. They’re not really interested in occupying the same kind of space as their former touring partners – their intention isn’t to write music that sounds good to lie half-cut on a plush rug to. They’d much rather bombard the listener with liberal doses of herculean bludgeoning groove.
Though it’s a more technical affair than that makes it sound – no track is riding one or two guitar lines or vocal hooks to carry them through. The song that kicks things off, Palendromeda, is a perfect example of their blueprint – it shifts through several gears, from the mid-paced head nodding groove that bookends the track through searing solos and whiplash chuggery that shift pace often and effortlessly. It’s disorienting at times but the thick, guitars and thuggish bass anchors the whole thing and ties it together like Lebowski’s rug. Like much of Crystalline it’s been constructed meticulously, dancing almost seemlessly between different sections, paces and time signatures. Which is where the sense of effort and dedication is evident – it could so easily come across as unfocussed. But it’s been hammered into shape and ground to a fine sheen. You can feel the labour coming through the speakers. It makes for a record ripe for sporting metaphors – swinging for the fences, leaving it all out on the field. The record boxes clever but isn’t shy at throwing haymakers. Etcetera etcetera. There are a couple of times that this sort of works against them – once or twice they seem to get lost within their own labyrinthine guitar lines, and you wish they’d just knuckle up and swing straight and true now and again. ‘The trouble with Hark is they try and walk it in’ perhaps. But then there’s always something like Mythopeia to bring things back on track with it’s more streamlined monumental heft.
And there are several moments like that – most of the record plays out like a highlight reel – it’s hard to pick out parts worthy of note above and beyond the rest. The awkward, off kilter swing of Hounded by Callous Decree, the sinister trudge that gives way to a Maston-esque extended middle section in Scarlet Extremeties, the complex clusterfuck of awesome that is Black Hole South West. Then there’s closer Clear Light of.. Usually a 10 minute curtain call wouldn’t be chosen to tease an album before it’s release, but then few of them have Clutch’s Neil Fallon, riding high from topping many a rock album of the year poll with Earth Rocker, putting in a guest spot in fine bellowing form. It’s a marathon of a track (it could perhaps have been trimmed a little at the end without harming it), which allows them to bed the song in before unleashing the Fallon, which is a smart move – he doesn’t steal the headlines or the show, he just sounds adds the cherry on the cake by sounding as magnificent as ever. The key line, ‘10,000 years of meaningless toil’ is a perfect fit for his brand of beardy heroism. It’s a long journey and an epic curtain call.
If you were to assess this as just a debut album Crystalline would be an astonishing effort – but then that would be to ignore all the years of sweat and blood that went to into the house that Taint built. No matter – Crystalline isn’t just ‘good for a debut’; this is as stunning a display of riffcraft as you could could hope to hear in 2014, not to mention the best album of it’s type these ears have heard for a long time.From a purely musical perspective the hard work has paid of handsomely, with the end product being the kind of record that in any just world would take Hark wherever it is they want to go.