VESTAL CLARET – Vestal Claret (2020)REVIEW

Unwrapped to reveal its curved onyx hilt and wringing ungracefully spattering blood from filthy, crusted years-old muslin, so occurs the hundredth transient spiritual defiance of the heart — A direct stab. Pour from sacrifice the grief resultant unto another container, a modern ritual from ancient-mind to loosened crestfallen soul that’d overflow in familiar patternation with fresh inspiration. The practiced motions of the actors in brandish of Vestal Claret sway as if the music itself were true magick, ensorcelled by way of earnest belief and aimed at the ‘trodden non-pretentious folk of the land equally stricken with solitude, grief and shatter where catharsis is most needed. The Connecticut-centered heavy psychedelic/folk rock infused traditional doom metal-attuned trio have self-titled their third album, ‘Vestal Claret‘, typically an act of beginning (or rebirth) for an artist yet in this case it’d appear sentimental, as if this titular feat were a stab back to rethink their original conception; What might’ve have been or, what should’ve, and potentially what the great beyond will serve.

Approaching a third full-length from these folks comes with an unsurprising amount of history and heraldry yet all of that’d threaten to weigh it’s wide-swinging heavy rock motions down to some degree. It isn’t exactly what all that other stuff was, nor is it so unimaginably different to the point of offending anyone already engaged to Vestal Claret. Whether it’d been the original run of Hour of 13 records that’d caught the ear of Phil Swanson admirers or his flings with Briton Rites, Seamount, and (lately) Sumerlands the fellow’s voice tends to pull folks in, myself included. It’d been ‘The Ritualist’ where I’d come on board and ‘333’ where I’d become a bit of a collector. From that point discovering Vestal Claret made sense circa 2014 when their second(-ish) album ‘The Cult of Vestal Claret’ released. Simon Tuozzoli‘s efforts in this group tend to get muddled or pushed later in timeline than appropriate, as Swanson would pass between different partnerships with his contributions but it’d… Well, man I’ll be honest all that water under the bridge stinks of iron and rust these days. What I mean is that Swanson‘s voice, range, control and timbre have matured and Tuozzoli‘s songwriting is perhaps even more strikingly evolved. So, if you were there back then last decade (and then some…), have your own horizons been thusly stretched? If so, ‘Vestal Claret’ will likely make sense. If not, the rigid heavy/doom metal tyrant has an abominable number of options year-over-year to skitter off towards instead.

Solitude as freedom in action for the creative mind unites the two main forces meeting for ‘Vestal Claret’ — Tuozzoli‘s role as the songwriter handling multiple instrumental duties as well as production and engineering found him with only his own terms to craft his vision, which includes heavy influence from medieval folk and the most classic and/or obscure progressive rock notions guiding his ear. Moving entirely away from composing tense, stomping heavy metal numbers towards an earthen, oft ethereally charged score that is perhaps better labeled occult/folk heavy rock if only for its deeper ties to the glowing ease of 60’s and dawning apocalyptic surrealism of the 70’s. Swanson‘s role as the lyricist and vocalist found his modus entirely on the road, writing lyrics on a year’s transience. The result is one of his most brutal performances, baring nothing short of a cursed soul on paper rationalizing through prose and poetry writ entirely possessed by solitude. Free in motion of creation and certainly free of distraction in isolation, yet somehow each musician collides with another in creation of powerfully doomed rock music. All the change, growth, trials, tribulation and meditation in the world and still their personalities shine through, heads hanging.

Folk-rockin’ prog-ish occult rock n’ heavy/traditional doom? Got it. Pure and potentially debilitating sorrow? Loads of it, and I hadn’t sat through half of ‘Vestal Claret’ before I’d let out a good, deep sigh. “Empty” and “Graey” open with accompaniment from vocalist Madeline Baldwin, where bright and folkish psychedelic rock rhythms introduce an entirely changed Vestal Claret. This chosen running order must’ve been for the sake of front-loading some energy and memorable hooks into the first impression because the dance behind the veil soon leads to collapsing spirits. “Shadows” stirs in a bit of grinding distortion, heavier acoustic pulses, and confronts the listener with a confessional of doom, a pure description of depression’s pit made into comfortable rut. Oh how the sweet song plays from down in a hole, though. “Loneliness is a love that I realize / Unconditional and it never dies” — The moment “Sorrow” hits exactly where it intends, it strikes me how much Swanson‘s voice has weathered to sound like Ozzy‘s most intense balladeer days sans all of the vocal trickery it’d take to get there. In this case the spiritual connection between psychedelic and progressive rock of the late 60’s seems to marry with aforementioned medieval folk inspiration, with some strong inflection gained from instrumental choices and the traipsing dance of the piece beneath Swanson‘s vocal.

‘Vestal Claret’ is not a pure shift away from heavy metal and “Burn” follows naturally. “Gonna start a fire, just to watch it burn / Harvester of discord / I know no other way” of course this might’ve merely been a personal bout of reflection, but this lyric speaks to discordance within society and the extremism they foster just as well. Paired with a swinging revolution rock riff it feels as an inspired burst of sun before the lights go out for another few songs. “Abandoned” could be an easy song to breeze through, as it seems to be another ode to solitude yet its piano and quivering chord accompaniment offers more than a ballad but a haunting piece that’ll resonate with anyone who’d ever been without a home or a stable place in the world. Of course I’ll shy away from making a track-by-track pile of myself but “Melancholia” is the piece that’ll most likely grows leg for the album; Pushing so far outside of the box that it’d become a chamber-doom piece, nigh a capella with keyboard and chorale to bolster the peaking message of isolation. At this point, you certainly ‘get’ the subject, the station and the entire emotional register of ‘Vestal Claret’.

How can one run away from himself / I’m trapped inside no ones there to help” sums it up beautifully on “Edge of Sanity”, a clear and unhindered window into the heart of what Swanson was feeling ‘on the run’ from life and the daimonian hand upon his back. At this point I was satisfied with the full listen yet eight songs in the ninth rears its head, pushing it. “Devil Dust” is the sort of song you kick off Side B with and it’d certainly been needed to break up the drone of pairing “Abandoned” alongside “Melancholia”, it is either too much or in the wrong place from my own perspective but it isn’t such a gripe that I’d start to sneer or spit, just droop a bit further in my chair having taken a few too many minutes of Vestal Claret‘s emotional beatings. I’ve really no complaints beyond that small point. If it comes to vinyl I’d more likely shell out for a fresh painting rather than the Doré piece, I suppose. Justin DeTore (Magic Circle, Sumerlands) is a fine drummer and Arthur Rizk gave the render enough room for ethereal resonance while allowing a living, moving presence to the final product, intimate yet intimate enough to allow for the awe of it all to resonate. I’ve been enamored with and psychically wounded by ‘Vestal Claret’, and at this point I appreciate most that Vestal Claret‘ve struck me with songcraft that’d cut twice as deep as any buzzing heavy metal noise might’ve. Hell, it might be too much for folks dealing with less than ideal isolation at present but, I’ll insist it is one for the books all the same. A high recommendation.

High recommendation.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Vestal Claret
RELEASE DATE:June 23rd, 2020
BUY/LISTEN/STREAM:Bandcamp [Digital]
GENRES:Heavy Psychedelic/Folk Rock, Traditional Heavy/Doom Metal

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