The grinding buzz of a bottom-of-the-ocean tuned bass riff pushed through a couple of nasty distortion pedals is yet the Harley-Davidson of choice for the greater stoner/doom biker-gang fandom of these last three decades. It wasn’t ‘Volume One’ that’d sold the world on that sandblasted heft but ‘Dopethrone’ and back then it’d been a bat-signal tha your band had a felon’s worth of possession stashed in their mind palace — Stoner doom had the weight of ‘outlaw music’ on its side when I’d discovered it as a creep-assed stoner teenager in the pre-millennium valleys of the pacific northwest, it was ‘new’ in feeling and just modern enough an extreme to latch deeply into; In the two decades since a great staleness persists in the above-ground channels for that sort ball-buzzing, stoned psychedelic doom record as possibilities are tapped and there are few angles left to lean into; Well, none of the easy seats are left anyhow. 70’s psych rock melody, moderate variations on a theme, and minimalistic concept yet define the indeterminate stoner/doom sub-genre beneath the surface but the last decade’s day-tripping back towards 90’s grunge and 60’s occult rock music for inspiration continues to bear mixed results. Seattle, Washington based psychedelic doom-rock duo Year of the Cobra escape some of this voided state through their own brand of minimalistic hugeness, stripped down to a melodious bareness by design. As a sophomore release ‘Ash and Dust’ offers an expected amount of growth and deviance beyond their charismatic coupling back in 2015 and subsequent debut full-length (‘…In the Shadows Below‘, 2016), crafting a pure-doom narrative within a tousled and sundry apocalyptic rock record.
The line every writer is aching to get out first is this remarkable feeling that the bass guitar tone is thick enough, and Amy Tung-Barrysmith‘s playing intricate enough, that you won’t even realize there is no guitar employed on ‘Ash and Dust’, or any other Year of the Cobra release. No, I definitely noticed, but the lack of guitar (and that nothing is ‘missing’) isn’t the interesting point but rather how the bass guitar is used as the main instrumental voicing to rend the veils between stoner rock, psychedelic doom, and beyond. There are hints of Green Druid‘s ritualistic expansion, Windhand‘s increasingly melodic fuzziness, the balmy creep of Blackwater Holylight, and the psychic death of later Kylesa (‘Exhausting Fire’) along the way through this Seattle band’s mountainous second trek and they do a fine job of personalizing their ascent… Er, descent? The dark realities of dystopic modern life told through dark fantasy continues to be an unexpected reaper’s presence within the gnarly grooves of Year of the Cobra‘s bigger picture.
‘Ash and Dust’ moves. It blows right by somehow and despite it being this lumbering bass-driven beast of sultry apocalyptic prose; The full listen is ‘easy’, smartly interwoven, and detangled as it jogs downward-flowing at a mid-pace. This could all begin to sound meditative, hypnotic and heady a la Zaum or Om by description if not for some greater focus on Tung-Barrysmith‘s vocals as her stylistic range impresses beyond her actual (deployed) vocal range, hitting upon tonally brilliant moments that impress more with each successive track down the list. There is a sour sensitivity, a soul if you will, that cracks the grey dirge previous as Side B eases from “Into the Fray” unto “At the Edge” and I so loved this purgatory between doom ballad and 90’s fuzz rock dreariness. “Dark Swan” continues this thread with an appropriately loud-quiet-loud crawl n’ wailer that recalls Gold (“Things I Wish I Never Knew”) as much as it does Acid King — A peak that bleeds into the cathartic last hurrah. This is, intentional or not, a fantastic study of ‘classic rock’ dynamic with the whole tracklist considered — Side A communicates personality and vigor while Side B expresses theme, sensitivity, and the sort of emotional resonance that bears a repeat listen. Simple and accessible as it might seem it did effectively pull me back in for many listens, often repeat listens, as ‘Ash and Dust’ goes from the storm to the great ‘final calm’ thematically and musically.
This gradual, easy slide into the quiet of a post-human world isn’t catchy enough to hook the ears of the pop-metal fan and the real ‘mark’ here is the stoner/doom music fan who dabbles in the occult/psychedelic rock firmament. In terms of intricacy and nut-swinging heavy metal, ‘Ash and Dust’ has a more lounging take to suss out; Though the title track does bristle their scruff up to a roar on “Ash and Dust”, a smartly placed punkish riot-rock jam that probably needed a reprise on Side B to really work. An album this rhythmically charged won’t appear performative enough for the doom metal purist, nor will it be pop (or nostalgia) spiked enough for todays indeterminately guided rock listener. That weirdo middle ground is all the more compelling on “The Divine”, which is basically Pentagram‘s “Forever My Queen” from an apocalyptic doom rock perspective. There I’d gauge my own interest in this album, placing ‘Ash and Dust’ in the pool of albums I’ll remember in the corner of my mind when it comes time to recommend gems to the exact right listener. Engineered with a diverse and melodious spirit tuned down towards the apocalypse — ‘Ash and Dust’ is earnest, fantastical and still somehow stoney as all hell. There is no better place to start with Year of the Cobra.
Moderately high recommendation. 3.75/5.0
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