The New Heavy

Electric Wizard, Boris, Sleep and the Hidden Hand

Jus Oborn of Electric Wizard
What is Heavy? Many bands are described as Heavy by record company PR departments, but very few truly achieve true Heaviness. Joe Carducci spent significant portions of his invaluable book Rock and the Pop Narcotic attempting to define Heavy, with some success.

Heavy is all about the rhythm section, specifically the bass and drums. Keyboards are never Heavy, unless they’re pipe organs, and when’s the last time you heard a pipe organ in a rock song? A guitarist can downtune until his strings hang in loops and sway in the breeze, but without the bass, and more importantly the drums, behind him, he’s got nothing. Tony Iommi would never have become what he did without Geezer Butler and Bill Ward behind him. This is why a band like Korn, whose guitar and bass strings are practically falling off, are not Heavy. They create a static throb, like some sort of large machine, and after about five minutes the sound is intolerable — listening to one of their albums is like working in a metal shop.

After about five minutes the sound is intolerable—listening to one of their albums is like working in a metal shop.
Listen, instead, to Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. “When The Levee Breaks,” from Led Zeppelin IV, is commonly cited as a landmark achievement in Heavy. And it is that. But “The Rover,” the second cut on Disc One of PG, is that track’s equal, and then some. John Bonham and John Paul Jones take the simple blues-funk groove, nominally led by Jimmy Page’s guitar, and walk it straight through your chest cavity. “The Rover” is a lesson in how to strut wearing two-ton concrete shoes.

Virtually every song on Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4 album, “Changes” and “FX” excepted, is paradigmatically Heavy. Even “Snowblind,” which in its early moments seems to share the rhythmic stasis of the wildly overrated “Sweet Leaf” from Master Of Reality — a perfect example of a crowd-pleasing lyric camouflaging musical weaknesses—kicks in halfway through with a double-time riff (right when Ozzy sings, “Don’t you think I know what I’m doing/Don’t tell me that it’s doing me wrong/You’re the one that’s really a loser/This is where I feel I belong”) that’s just crushing. Bands can go their whole career searching for a moment of glory like that; Black Sabbath Vol. 4 is almost overstuffed with them.

But these records were made in the mid-1970s. Who are the masters of Heavy today? There are many low-profile Heavy bands, each with their partisans. Lots of hep folks speak well of the Queens Of The Stone Age, but they’ve always fallen short of the mark, because they’re actually a bass-guitar duo, bringing in ringers to fill out the sound in-studio and on the road. For all the hype surrounding Dave Grohl’s drumming contributions to their last album, Songs For The Deaf, there was little or no actual Heavy feel. A visit from a Special Guest almost always implies that no time has been spent building an organic symbiosis between bassist and drummer. There’s a locking-in that happens after six months of touring, or constant practicing, that no session man, however ace, can walk in cold and replicate. It’s that simple.

Many acts working with Heaviness these days fall into either the “stoner” or “doom” metal categories. Doom, which is all about keeping holy the Sabbath, has its virtues. Too often, though, bands become convinced that slow and low is enough. Witness the recent rise, and embrace by arty types, of Sunn 0))), a band whose sound consists of incredibly low-frequency drones spiced up with the occasional sub-Sab riff. One or two tracks have drums, but there’s never any attempt at forward movement, let alone the almost-swinging blues-groove that’s the foundation of classic Heavy. Electric Wizard are much better — they’re just as obsessed with sludge and rumbling drones as Sunn 0))), but they’re a power trio, and exist not to ooze, but to rock. Their Dopethrone album adds feedback, menace and paranoid hostility to the Sabbathian formula, and slaps one of the best covers in all of metal (a van-art painting of Satan doing bonghits) on the front, creating a modern classic of Heavy.

Their music makes them sound like they’d be thick-necked guys the size of weightlifters gone to seed, with bushy brows above eyes like red-hot ball bearings. But not only are they all skinny Asians, their guitarist is a girl with an Orange amp taller than she is.
Somewhere between Electric Wizard and Sunn 0))) is the Japanese trio Boris. Their music makes them sound like they’d be thick-necked guys the size of weightlifters gone to seed, with bushy brows above eyes like red-hot ball bearings. But not only are they all skinny Asians, their guitarist is a girl with an Orange amp taller than she is. The Boris to own is Amplifier Worship, recently released in America on the Southern Lord label (a prime source for all things doom). Some songs are in the 15-minute range, but others are short and punchy. The vocals are an indecipherable caveman roar, and the guitar chews its way out of the speakers — but the rhythm section, unfortunately, often falls flat. The drummer hits hard, but the bassist isn’t given enough freedom to swing. Boris, like Sunn 0))), are too fascinated by the ground beneath their feet, and forget to keep moving. Their other Southern Lord release, Absolutego, contains only two tracks, one of which is 65 minutes long. Boris are at their best when they pare their songs down to a core of sludgy tempo, overamped guitar, and pile-driving, low-gear bass and drums.

Sleep’s “Dopesmoker” is another hour-plus track, and it comes with one of rock’s greatest true stories attached. The band released two albums, one independently and one on the early 1990s’ best metal label, Earache Records. They were then snapped up by Polygram subsidiary London, and given a major-label amount of money to record a follow-up. Sleep vanished into the studio with their co-conspirator, producer Billy Anderson. Over the course of the next two years or so, they spent virtually the entire recording budget on weed, stonewalling the record company all the while. Finally, they turned in “Dopesmoker,” a 63-minute song about weed which they insisted on making the entirety of their third album, with no edits of any kind. Quite unsurprisingly, they were dropped, and the song/album vanished into music-biz limbo. A few years ago, though, an edited version (56 minutes, chopped into six “movements”) was released by The Music Cartel, retitled Jerusalem. Now, it’s been remixed, and restored to its full, single-track glory.

“Dopesmoker” is long, slow, and Heavy. But it’s never boring, even during those first ten minutes before the vocals come in. Bassist and vocalist Al Cisneros, and drummer Chris Hakius roar and throb like a supertanker’s engine room, keeping the vast bulk of the track in motion. Guitarist Matt Pike is currently leading one of the loudest bands on the planet, the power trio High On Fire. His sound was already in place on Dopesmoker; a thick, distorted roar you can practically feel congealing on your skin. Anybody who wants to understand the true sonic legacy of Black Sabbath needs to hear everything Matt Pike has recorded, and Dopesmoker is a career high point.

Another totemic figure in modern Heavy is Scott “Wino” Weinrich. For just under a quarter-century, he’s been writing and playing some of the most gut-churning, awe-inspiring riffs anywhere with a string of bands — the Obsessed, Saint Vitus, Spirit Caravan, and now Place Of Skulls and the Hidden Hand (yeah, he’s in two bands at once these days). When Washington, D.C., was ablaze with lightning-speed hardcore bands like Minor Threat and the Bad Brains, Wino was grinding out post-Sabbath riffs with the Obsessed. Later, when he joined prototypical doom metal outfit Saint Vitus and began touring with Black Flag, punk audiences nationwide thought the band was a Spinal Tap-esque joke. They were dead wrong — the best proof of that is the fact that Wino’s still going, still doing exactly the same thing he’s always been doing. For a few years in the late 1990s, he led Spirit Caravan, a power trio that allowed him to bark his weed-fueled lyrics about earthly squalor and spiritual transfiguration, and play one Iommi-meets-Hendrix guitar solo after another. They released the Dreamwheel EP, and followed that with two albums, Jug Fulla Sun and Elusive Truth, all of which are better than 90 percent of the “stoner” rock scene’s output.

Where Spirit Caravan seemed to want to take the listener to a higher plane, the Hidden Hand gets bogged down in pointless political hectoring.
When the Caravan broke up, something must have snapped in Wino, though, because his new band, the Hidden Hand, is weird. Their debut album, Divine Propaganda, has a reading list inside its booklet that includes muckraking journalist Greg Palast and British nutjob David Icke, among others. The Icke book, And The Truth Shall Set You Free, is an early work, so it’s unlikely that Wino believes the world is being taken over by 12-foot-tall, shape-shifting lizards. But the turn towards overt politicizing is troublesome nonetheless, as politics is nearly always the death of art, and rock especially. Divine Propaganda features a lot of the same ultra-Heavy doom riffs Wino’s been playing for 20-plus years, but a few songs also speed up to punk tempos, and that’s not necessarily a positive change — when combined with the sloganeering lyrics, it makes the music one-dimensional. Where Spirit Caravan seemed to want to take the listener to a higher plane, the Hidden Hand gets bogged down in pointless political hectoring. Still, many of the album’s tracks do reach the old heights on an instrumental level. Wino may not know what he’s talking about politically, but he’s never forgotten how to play guitar, and he always knows how to pick a rhythm section that suits him.

Wino represents the old guard these days; he’s younger than Iommi, but older than Matt Pike, and he’s probably got at least another decade of power-trio amplifier worship in him. Pike’s High On Fire are just getting off the ground, having only two albums to their credit so far. Boris have been around for awhile, but they’re extremely productive (as are lots of other underground Japanese bands, many of which are quite eardrum-damaging and great) and show no signs of slowing down. And these are only three of the literally hundreds of bands across America and the world who are attempting to create a whole new Heavy universe of sound. As long as there’s electricity, there will be guitarists, bassists and drummers consumed by low tones and high volume. Heavy never dies.