Ripple Music kicked off their new series of split vinyl releases back in January with the excellent Enter Galactic Wasteland featuring the contrasting talents of Spacetrucker and Mr Bison. The much-anticipated (by me at any rate) second instalment is now here and it was well worth the wait. However, whereas the bands on Chapter One had entirely different sounds, both Howling Giant and Sergeant Thunderhoof are mining the same seam, mixing prog and heavy rock, albeit in different doses.
The main feature that separates this release from your standard split LP format is that the bands agreed on a common theme and each recorded a single epic track based on the Japanese fable of legendary swordmakers Masamune and Muramasa. Now, I can’t claim any prior familiarity with Japanese folklore so the following is cribbed entirely from Wikipedia, the lazy person’s alternative to actual knowledge. From what I can gather both Masamune and Muramasa were real swordsmiths, although their lives were separated by over a century so there’s no way they could have actually met. Ignoring that inconvenient fact, the story goes broadly as follows (although there seem to be multiple variations on the theme):
Muramasa challenges his master, Masamune, to see who can make the best sword and, when they’ve finished, they take them down to a nearby creek to test them. I’m assuming that’s how swords were tested back in those days, before you could entertain yourself by chopping up tin cans. Anyway, Muramasa puts his sword in the stream and it cuts through everything that goes near it: fish; floating leaves; the air that passes over it; that sort of thing. Masamune is very impressed and places his sword in the stream. When it cuts only leaves, Muramasa starts to gloat until, as perhaps could be predicted, a wise monk passes by. (I studied Chinese at university many moons ago and you can all but guarantee that at the end of any fable a smug monk / hermit / random passerby is going to turn up with an unexpected moral truth). He declares that the first sword was bloodthirsty and evil as it did not discriminate what it cut, whereas the second was superior as it only cut things which needed cutting. In any event, Wikipedia tells me that Masamune is revered to this day as perhaps the country’s finest ever swordsmith, whereas Muramasa’s swords are still viewed in certain quarters as in some way evil. To summarise: a really cool basis for a split LP.
First up are Nashville’s Howling Giant, a three-piece fresh from their excellent debut album The Space Between Worlds last year on Blues Funeral Records. Heavy prog isn’t generally quite my cup of tea, but Howling Giant do it with an energy and lack of pretension that ensures there’s plenty of rock present. Now, their previous releases have only featured fairly short tracks, but Howling Giant really seize the chance to stretch out and deliver something genuinely epic across the 19 minutes of Masamune.
Their styles are similar, but different enough to really complement each other, and they’ve delivered an LP that’s complex, epic, and totally rocking…
The production here is spot on; the guitar and bass are satisfyingly crunchy, the drummer hits hard, and the polished vocals are well up in the mix giving everything a spacy sheen. I’m not going to try and take you through the various twists and turns that the track takes, suffice to say that Howling Giant cover a lot of ground without ever losing the thread: it sounds organic and works as a coherent whole. While there are several quieter sections, the bulk of the track is pacey and melodic, with the busy rhythm section providing an excellent base for everything else including occasional swirling organ, piano, and synths. At times it’s space rock reminiscent of Farflung, at other times it’s very much just Howling Giant. The track builds to a suitably climactic finale which could easily stray into overblown and cheesy territory, but I’d say the band manage to land it on the awesome side of the line.
On the flipside are Somerset’s finest purveyors of prog-flavoured stoner rock, Sergeant Thunderhoof. I was quite surprised when this split was announced as the band have always been a determinedly DIY outfit, shunning record company involvement and building up quite a following across three self-released albums that I’d recommend you check out. Sergeant Thunderhoof’s sound is based in old school stoner rock – think big fuzzy riffs, snarling subsonic bass and classic rock vocals – but with a hefty dose of expansive psychedelia. Their second album, Ride of the Hoof, showed that the band aren’t slaves to brevity and the twenty one minute opus Muramasa feels as though it came completely naturally to the band.
The track starts out in fine style, weaving in and out of a hulking stoner riff that demands you nod along, while vocalist Dan Flitcroft demonstrates that he has a serious set of pipes. If you stopped the track around the nine minute mark, then you’d have a proper stoner rock song complete with storming guitar solo and catchy chorus. Instead, from there Sergeant Thunderhoof really stretch out and explore the themes of their side of the fable. The second half of the track is perhaps more restrained and introspective, but still has plenty of gnarly riffs. As with Howling Giant’s side there are definitely points where a lesser band could falter, but Sergeant Thunderhoof totally nail it: soaring vocals and a wailing guitar make for a sweeping and entirely satisfying finale, before that stomping guitar riff from the start returns to pound you into the dirt a few more times.
I’m particularly fond of a good split LP and I wasn’t totally sold on the idea of turning the format into a two-legged concept album, but holy smokes this is a good record. Howling Giant and Sergeant Thunderhoof are two excellent bands and here they’re clearly on top of their game. Their styles are similar, but different enough to really complement each other, and they’ve delivered an LP that’s complex, epic, and totally rocking. Grab it while you can.