BOOK OF WYRMS – Occult New Age (2021)REVIEW

The ominous tonnage of Richmond, Virginia based quartet Book of Wyrms has been largely holstered for this third record in their wake, a mid-1970’s heavy psychedelic rock swagger at once overtaking and pairing ideally with their own ‘modern’ stoned solemnity. Distant yet growling psych-fuzz n’ blues, Sabbath-n-‘Space Ritual’ wheeling in adulterated high fantasy tales still lands us up their alley while liberally mutating ye olde gloom n’ doomed stoner metallic beginnings into something a bit more ethereal, inventive by forgotten standards and organically sourced. The transformation is not entirely complete in terms of style yet the spaced earthiness and distant fuzziness of the experience speaks direct and loud into the hairy ear canals of we lovers of adventure-bound heavy psych. ‘Occult New Age‘ is masterful for the sake of a metamorphosis outside of time, an idealist record from a band that’d already begun to stand out in the right way on their last, having aimed their way forward and committed to each loosely choreographed step in advance.

Easy, trundling and tousled in the slinking-forth movement of the album’s opening buzz, it’ll prove easy to commit a minor crime of complacency when cracking open ‘Occult New Age’ without appreciation for the meticulously sourced and shorn essence of the 1970’s in its instrumental timbre — Their gloriously careful choice of effects, an artful balance of instrumental presence, and a stylized final rendering beyond the norm. They’ve not simply gone for preset values but tuned this album directly to a spot of realist hippy wilderness, minds as capable of conveying technicolor escapism as they are the darkening world around them. Yes, retro sound design in heavy rock and metal spheres has been distilled to a science but I’d argue for Book of Wyrms‘ balance of old and new as a valuable application of earth-toned resonance which cannot be confused with nostalgia. It was storytelling that’d been at the heart of their dragon fantasy doom metal nerd-fest to start in 2014 and this is still largely true today, they’ve just added some believable age and curl to the pages of this volume.

If we stretch back to Book of Wyrms‘ first demo (‘Demo‘, 2015) a different set of influences seem to apply, leaning heavily into bass driven psychedelic doom metal dirges of the extended variety which I’d directly liken to the underrated Sharie Neyland-fronted albums from The Wounded Kings starting with (my favorite) ‘In The Chapel of The Black Hand‘, the sort of doom metal albums that’d been heavily toying with the idea of infusing the occult rock “trend” into a most natural companion medium. The heart of the band was perhaps more interested in something more lively than they were yet attempting, a stoner rock/metal hybridization that maintained this haunting doom metal tonality but gave the listener a more complete journey, injected a few more action sequences and left us wounded on the back of a dragon rather than uh, dead in a temple at the end. The result of tweaking the knobs a bit was their debut full-length ‘Sci-Fi/Fantasy‘ (2017), a record that spoke more to the direction Windhand were clearly headed with a sort of complex set of stoner/doom lineage that might reach back to the 90’s for choruses while sounding early 2000’s sludge-fuzzed and hitting 70’s prog-adjacent psych by seeming virtue of osmotic inevitability. The most classic influences begin to matter most at that point wherein a new dark world opened for the band as they’d found their own brand of weirding and ran with it on the celebrated ‘Remythologizer‘ in 2019, my introduction to their work and a strong companion piece for ‘Occult New Age’ in terms of juxtaposition by virtue of growth and some major consistency in the personal touches that matter most in the endless sea of stoner gunk. The next portal features a higher difficulty level but the ride isn’t at all frustrating, you’re ready for it.

For this third album, their first album as a quartet, the band themselves probably feel the growing pains of moving together within a freshly sprawling reality in exponent compared to the listener, any existing fandom will feel the garage psych paradigm fits absolutely right for their easy shift into what is essentially doom-paced heavy psychedelic rock, “doom rock” if you will. Slow and easy, an ever present distance characterizes the main voicing of the record but the band find themselves quickly and easily rising to an ass-shake when it counts; We’re now in the realm of some of my favorite doom rock bands like Blackwater Holylight and Occultation, though the rhythmic map is woven in a different mode in each case the sense of personal style and waft of the most ancient viably heavy music within resonates in similar ways. Book of Wyrms have bridged all worlds with this eldest rock feeling and they’re ready to show it off with some immediate action between the frothy riffs and dual guitar battles of opener “Meteoric Dagger” and the pocket-tapping, head swaying early 80’s jog of “Colossal Yield” and their paired opening station does wonders for characterizing the spirit of ‘Occult New Age’ up front, an album related to ‘Remythologizer’ in personae and voice but distinctly a step into their own retro-futurist rock fantasy outside of linear time. You might not buy into the suggested Hawkwind references for this group ’til “Hollergoblin” opens with its five minute spaced rock jam, landing within vocalist Sarah Moore-Lindsey‘s gloomy voice before finding some overdrive scorched speed n’ blues for the last third of the piece. Here we see the light hand of synthesizer work threaded throughout their discography doing a lot for the piece with very little and more importantly the acid rock freakout side of the band gets a good-sized vignette near the center of the full listen.

“Speedball Sorcerer” might be one of the strongest bouts of songwriting on the album though it opens up some thought on the timbre of the vocals, which are (again) distant and in a quietly reverberating space, set as a dark glowing orb within a boisterous and prog-grinding heavy rock song. I’d initially read this as a sort of timid and too-quiet statement, and though I could use a bit more power on songs like these I can appreciate the surrealistic value of this setup and how much it intensifies the vibe of the music towards a deadpan doom aesthetic while still letting loose with the instrumental movements in every direction. From this point the freakout has consumed Book of Wyrms and the remaining couple of pieces are prone to jam-heavy movement with infrequent breaks into narrative psychedelic doom verses. We’ve gotten a good shake of new ideas across the board but the conclusion of the album holds fast to the doom metal spectrum with purpose, even if I didn’t find a few songs (“Keinehora”, “Weatherworker”) as memorable as others, the vibe is well sustained and album ends right at the ideal span of time.

Looking at that ridiculously strong album art from Taralyn Philips, lazing into the haunting retro-cavern of ‘Occult New Age’ and finding the whole experience intoxicating beyond the norm I’d still stop short of suggesting this is the Book of Wyrms masterpiece just yet, if only because I want to see what they do next. The view is great, this is a major sweet spot for the project, but the trajectory could prove even more wild in the future. Divorcing myself from the expectation of linear time and soaking in the record ’til shriveled, my recommendation swells considerably for the sake of witnessing a particularly strong (if not dissolving) progression from Side A to Side B, upfront buzz and patient-yet-rocking movements via the surrealistic calm of arcane atmosphere and “heavy psych yet heavy metal” charm it insists upon. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (79/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Occult New Age
LABEL(S):Desert Records
RELEASE DATE:May 7th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Psychedelic Doom/Stoner Metal,
Heavy Psychedelic Rock

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