When stoner rock first bubbled up in the ’90s, it basically stood for Black Sabbath-worship. It was retro by definition and seemed like an untenable fad. Who could’ve guessed it would outlast grunge? As its roots and fringes continue to cycle through revival phases, stoner rock seems to chug along without any noticeable down time. But can something so derivative at its root actually evolve?
Moon Curse certainly has. Its 2012 self-titled debut fell into the strict ’70s-aping category, with only the occasional guttural groan to suggest it was created in the digital age. The band’s rogue 2014 track “Seminary Woods” was a stylistic leap of a couple decades—less Deep Purple, more Melvins—but still not exactly modern or unique. No one is going to mistake the band’s new album, The Spirit Remains, (out November 30) for an oldie, though. You still get some fuzzed-out, Man’s-Ruin guitar tonality, but it’s beefed up and interspersed with crushing sludge riffs. Gone are the vintage Hammond organ sounds; the occasional keyboard accents are little more than judicious psychedelic flourishes. What emerges is at once a more eclectic and unified sound for the band, and by far Moon Curse’s most original and forward-thinking music yet.
It’s only since the rise of Northless that Milwaukee’s metal scene has begun to regain its stature, which might help to explain the sharp redirection into a heavier style for Moon Curse. Spirit Remains is nowhere near as brutal as Northless, but it contains the first Moon Curse songs that could be considered metal in a modern sense. “Beneath The Waves” and “Electric Veins” are each sonic onslaughts that wouldn’t sound out of place on a sludge or drone/doom album, and the latter incorporates tambura (by guest contributor Andrew Shelp of Moss Folk) for an effectively exotic aura.
As one might expect, the lyrics tend toward the spiritual, with occult and mythological references throughout, evocative without being terribly explicit. Given the pervading options in the metal realm, anything that’s not morbidly grotesque or cartoonishly evil tends to be a cut above the pack, and producer Nolan Treolo allows the words to pierce through the noise without sacrificing atmosphere.
Sure, the primary riff in “Lord Of Memories” sounds a lot like something Tony Iommi might’ve come up with in the early ’70s, and Matt Leece’s voice does approximate Ozzy Osbourne’s at times (particularly in “Vicious Sky”), but it never sounds forced. It would’ve been predictable to take on a more beastly, metallic scream to go along with the heavier music, but some of the tortured wails on this album make Leece’s past work sound almost apathetic. Even more resonant are the harmonies between Leece and bassist Rochelle Nason; their interplay on “Beneath The Waves” and “Lord Of Memories” are both beautiful and unnerving.
Moon Curse hasn’t lost its primal edge, but there’s a marked sophistication about the songwriting that sets this release above the group’s previous efforts. Leece offsets the increased ferocity of his guitar playing with quieter moments like the lush acoustic outro of “Memories” as well as its riveting twin-guitar climax, and the subdued, Dylan Carson-like beginning of “Witches’ Handbook” evokes a massive weight of anticipation. This final track is also the biggest revelation of the album; it ventures into an expected methodical plod, then ramps up into a gallop reminiscent of Iron Maiden, leading to some heroic lead guitar work and ending the album on a triumphant note. Maybe Moon Curse has transcended the stoner tag, and The Spirit Remains is simply a great no-frills metal record.