Australian propulsive jam-rock duo continue their quest for the One Riff to Rule Them All
If you ask me the finest achievement of legendary instrumental trio Karma to Burn was in proving that ostensibly ‘stoner’ riff-rock is often done best when stripped right down to it’s base elements – a monstrous sounding guitar and a rhythm section. Vocals aren’t really necessary if the grooves are good enough; given all the Ozzy sound-alikes and weak third-rate John Garcia’s I’ve heard over the years cutting out the singer is often preferable. Now this pair of brothers, Ben (drums) and Toby (guitar) Matthews, seem intent on going one step further – putting forward the notion that perhaps the bassist in that line up is an unnecessary luxury.
When faced with instrumental rock with a whiff of the desert about it KtB are always the first thing that comes to mind – and like them HWCT are likely to be tagged as ‘stoner’ despite not being nearly as limited in scope as that label might suggest. Their tendrils stretch into many other genres, from punk to psych and beyond. Ikiryo is their first full length in a good 5 years, though in the interim they’ve been involved in a number of collaborations and splits, most notably with laid back desert rock king Gary Arce of Yawning Man/Ten East etc. I don’t know if they were taking notes but there’s definitely been a softening of the edges of their sound since 2008’s Black Yolk, in tone if not songwriting approach – there’s a richer, warmer feeling to their distorted sounds. Whereas their debut was a furious, noisey affair Ikiryo is more inviting, enveloping you like the tide washing over the coast, lapping at the shore with waves of golden fuzz.
However they work in surprisingly standard structures for a jam band – it’s almost a straight up verse-chorus-verse type of affair. Live, when they stray from the recorded material and cut loose, they’re a different prospect. The two-piece set up suddenly makes total sense; it’s easier to shift and mutate as one when there’s only two minds in the mix. I don’t know how they write but on this evidence I’m willing to guess they’re the kind of dudes to jam stuff out like that, take away the best parts of a session and fashion songs from them. This highlight reel approach makes for some stunning moments on Ikiryo, but they are guilty of not really doing enough with them. Opener Breath has a beautiful, summery tone, but doesn’t really go anywhere – it sounds like the instrumental version of a song written for a vocalist. Riley has the same issue, though the frantic riffery on display is enough to get away with it – my first thought was that I wish this track was around back when I used to have a custom playlist running on the original xbox while playing Burnout 2. The relentlessness would be perfect for careening wildly round a corner and gleefully smashing an opponent against the guard rail. Fourth track Tetryl sort of drifts by in the same manner Breath did – there’s a potency in the sledge hammer riffery, but it’s lost in a narrow cycle of repetition. As a fan of instrumental rock I’m extremely loath to say it’s missing a vocalist, as it’s been proved many times that it’s more than possible to make a record compelling enough without one, but these songs certainly miss something. They feel like they’ve been written as conventional songs, or that they were originally peaks of longer jams shorn of their context.
Which doesn’t make them bad – the repetition of sections does allow you time to bask in the light of their beautifully hazy tones. It just feels like they could be doing more than bolting together a few really good sounding bits and running with them for a while – on their bio they emphasise their improvisational skills (something they ably displayed last year with their lengthy improv piece Ode to Chunn) – but in these shorter, tighter bursts it doesn’t quite shine through. Dance the Hempen Jig is the exception in the shorter tracks with some deliriously catchy guitar parts and excellent rolling drums. It’s easily the most addictive track here and one I know I’m going to be coming back to a lot during the summer months. And then there’s the title track, by far the longest song here. On Ikiryo they switch the guitar sound to something more airy and dreamlike without sacrificing the scale of their sound (it’s worth noting just how damn massive they sound throughout for a two-piece). It’s a hypnotic, meditative piece which shows what they can do when they allow themselves some room to breathe, and it only gets more mesmerising when it turns loud at the end, bursting into a single riff that stops and starts and shifts ever so slightly as it gets drilled into your skull.
In the end it adds up to a decent offering that frustrates by not quite showcasing what makes HWCT such a brutishly bewitching spectacle. This is the first of multiple planned releases from them in 2014, so it won’t be long to see if they can make headway on record towards being the recorded force I reckon they will become. It feels like a stop on a journey. Some bands use their releases as landmarks, attempts to perfect themselves and release the Ultimate Statement of what they’re trying to do and who they want to be. HWCT don’t seem fussed by that for the moment; they seem content to jam away looking for something spectacular and periodically dropping nuggets of what they’ve found so far. They’re akin to a rock n’ roll equivalent of Leonard Cohen’s card dealer, “looking for the card so high and wild he’ll never have to deal another” – questing to find the perfect marriage of tone and groove so warm and perfect it’ll render all others null and void. And if that’s the case, well, I’ve gotta say it’s one hell of a noble endeavour. Godspeed, gentlemen.
Ikiryo is available from Hotel Wrecking City Traders’ bandcamp page, along with a stack of earlier releases.