I’m gunna level with you: the modern day sludge/heavy psych/drone/doom/whatever market these days is more crowded than a standard rush-hour in New Delhi, although yes, I’ll admit there are some bands that do come more immediately to the fore. You have the old guard for a start – the Noothgrushs, Acid Kings, Goatsnakes, Electric Wizards, Sleeps and Eyehategods of the world. Then you can add in the more modern innovators who twist, turn, shape and craft age-old riffs into greater, grander metal monoliths – take the Neurosis’, Yobs, Pallbearers, Ufomammuts and Elders. Add in a newer crop of acts who are essentially retro-revivalists, brilliantly updating the classic templates for a new generation of fan – Windhand, Kadavar and Satan’s Satyrs, kindly raise your claws. And to overcomplicate matters, you have acts that remain beneath the murk and simply concentrate on building pure force through the channel of atmosphere – Bell Witch, Indian, Slomatics, Primitive Man and yes, Conan. To have even a hope in the grisly bowels of hell of coming into today’s scene and keep your head above the grimy puddle water that’s already been oh-so well trodden in by all of the aforementioned, let alone stand out from this rabid mob of heavy veterans, you have to be good. Really, really fucking good. And you have to be something different that people can’t get from anyone else. And yet, somehow you must still sound familiar enough for fans and us think-we-know-all critics to relate back to that founding establishment. It’s tough, it’s very tough. But somehow, with play after play of their astonishing album Unanswered Hymns, Sacramento, California’s Chrch (until recently spelt Church) have proven to my perennially grumbling ears, that it can still be done right in the most devastating of fashions by a young, debut act.
We the unassuming may well not have known the power of what this five-piece (vocalist Eva, guitarists Shann and Chris, bass-player Ben and drummer Matt) have been painstakingly creating since late 2013, with the Unanswered Hymns release arriving to a low-key fanfare and with very limited live appearances to date. With the word spreading out fast and with live gigs with the likes of Bongripper and Unearthly Trance ramping up under their belts however that’s not likely to remain the case for long. Unanswered Hymns could well be one of the most complete doom records I’ve heard in years, or ever for that matter. It’s as raw, unapologetic, uncomfortably brutal, strangled and harrowing as any band could summon from their version of the abyss, yet it’s also full to the brim of an inner brand of grace, beauty and subtle vulnerability that even the greats would struggle to achieve.
From the ominous bell-tolling riffs at the helm of the titanic Dawning to the closing labyrinth of feedback at the tradesman’s entrance of the towering Offering, it’s impossible to tear your attention away from Chrch’s mesmeric song craft, which promises from the off to “simply (be) whatever the listener wants it to be”. Dawning is a journey in itself; beginning at the tar-thick pits of lumbering sludge riffs that keep the pace slow enough to offer maximum Devastation Mode sub-sonics, whilst equally maintaining a chugging rhythm that keeps your neck bones a-nodding. After around six minutes though, Chrch slow down and open up to allow the background growls of Eva and Chris to echo across a drier plain of subtly picked, tapped and strummed percussion. Eva slowly begins to unravel into a mermaid; a tantalising vocal goddess sat somewhere in the middle of the forceful beauty of Runhild Gammelsæter, the familiar war-cry of Lori S and the sly, all-knowing originality of PJ Harvey. Dawning opens and unravels before us like a clam shell with chiming guitar notes and slowly ramping drumwork until we’re at an almost ethereal crescendo at around the 13-minute mark. The guitars take over and before you know it you’re sprinting down the barrel, followed in murderous pursuit by Shann and Chris’ superhuman riffs and Eva’s cavernous deathgrowl. There are nods to classic Electric Wizard, Acid King and Ufomammut throughout this stunning conclusion but as the delicious wah-wah peddles quake and the hammers of Thor rain down around me, I can only sit back and grin at this triumph of a tune.
Stargazer, at eleven minutes in length, is the shortest and arguably simplest of Unanswered Hymns’ three cuts to wrap your understanding around. Setting out its stall amid a humid swarm of bassy warble and solemn, contemplative drum hits, it appears gentle and serene before Eva explodes into the mix, her throat raging like an ulcer on the surface of Mercury. She allows the rhythm of Ben’s bass to take the track along a progressive path that’s well-worn, yet fondly revisited time and time again as the guitar solos glisten and quake amid the languishing memories of souls long-lost but never forgotten whilst her voice allows itself into expanses seldom seen in a genre usually so bullish. Again as the riffs return, there are nods to Electric Wizard, Windhand and even the bulldozer tone of Saint Vitus’ Dave Chandler that somehow manage to peak high enough to bring you to the verge of some very deep emotions indeed.
Closing cut Offering brings the Acid King comparison back to the fore initially in an even tighter manner. Eva dwells back in the pocket, culling her verses from in front of the battery of Matt’s kit yet well behind the guitars and bass of her beard-bearing comrades. The hypnotism experienced on Dawning returns however to push the limits of the equipment beyond the physical and into that solely mental domain where epic doom music should truly manifest itself. There follows passages of prolonged screams, gasps, wails and ever-punishing riffery that strike closer to Primitive Man and Bell Witch comparisons than Chrch have descended to previously on the record. By the time the smouldering, jarring feedback arrives to take you in to the outer beyond you’re either in love, in rapture or in pieces amongst Chrch’s glorious pile of decay.
For me, this is as good as it gets in “new doom” right now; sheer velocity, innovation, conviction and finesse locked tightly around a wheel of broken beauty. And don’t forget Chrch as a band are only just starting out on their journey. I do sincerely hope that said wheel doesn’t fall off the doomwagon in due course for them and that there are some incredible live shows brewing to back up this stunning debut album. Still, Chrch were wrong about one thing: these hymns are certainly not ones that will remain unanswered for much longer.
Scribed by: Pete Green