posted on 9/2012 By:
Sound can get you a hell of a long way. Nail a particular tone, and you might just get the listener in a forgiving state of mind where other shortcomings are concerned. And you know what? Sometimes I’m perfectly happy to build a little house inside one of those sounds and just drink in the vibrations. Still, without truly effective songs to act as buttresses, that house quickly crumbles. The sound that initially satisfied turns sour. Nothing lingers.
Such is the dilemma of the debut album from Serpentine Path. The pre-history of the band makes digesting Serpentine Path in isolation a near impossibility. The entirety of Unearthly Trance shacking up with Tim Bagshaw of Ramesses (and formerly of Electric Wizard) to kick out monomaniacal doom is a drool-worthy proposition on paper, but the result is sadly underwhelming.
It’s important to note that Bagshaw wrote the majority of the material here, so the specter of Ramesses hovers much nearer than that of Unearthly Trance. His riffs are minimal doom sketches that look to the foul birthing of death metal, but more than anything narrative or propulsive, these riffs are simply vessels for the overwhelming, earth-rumbling sound of the album, which is both the album’s best feature and its ultimate undoing. When songs flip the switch to ‘supremely minimal’, the only real tactic for the listener is to settle in, feel the collective’s weight buzzing deep in the chest, and disappear beneath a narcotic blanket.
Even so, too often these songs settle on an effective riff, but then either abandon it for straight-ahead plodding (as on much of album opener “Arrows”) or ride it out beyond the point of tedium. Also adding to the album’s frustrating tendency to the monotonous is the fact that Ryan Lipynsky’s vocals don’t cut as harshly or diversely as they did in both Unearthly Trance and Thralldom. Still, the album has its fair share of ill-tempered delights. “Bats Amongst Heathens” opens up some additional guitar textures, and “Aphelion” mercifully picks up the pace and adds some twitchy guitar leads. The sinister, slow-motion swing of the main riff on closer “Only a Monolith Remains” is another jewel, and the additional percussion effect that accompanies the song’s final slog is a nice touch – a merciless anvil strike echoing through the desolate scene pictured in the cover art.
Ironically, though, “Beyond the Dawn of Time,” despite its extreme sloth and insistent repetition, is one of the album’s best songs. This is because it clearly signals its intent to grind and drone one titanic power-chord riff out not just to the end of the song, but likely to the end of the world and beyond. (Plus, listen to the pitiless way Lipynsky chews and spits on the word “cosmos”!) Too often Serpentine Path’s songs feel static by accident, but here the intention is as wide and clear as the ocean. The minimal architecture of the song also gives Darren Verni’s understated but heavy-hitting fills room to shine.
If I’m coming off as rather harsh, it’s not because this is a terrible album. The sound is just right, with a massive production that rattles both walls and bones with equal disregard. The problem is that I loved Unearthly Trance, but have always been pretty lukewarm on Ramesses. Thus, when it comes down to thinking about Serpentine Path as either Ramesses with better vocals or Unearthly Trance with worse songs and less variation, you can imagine the side on which I find myself.
Hope springs eternal, though: Serpentine Path recently announced that they’re padding their already absurd doom cred by bringing on Stephen Flam of New York death/doom legends Winter as a second guitarist. With that added instrumentation, and perhaps a more collaborative songwriting approach next time around, the future of Serpentine Path just might turn out to be every bit as bright and cheerless as we miserable doom hounds could ever desire.
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