From the band name, track lengths (two tracks…60 minute release…) and the starry desertscape on the cover art, an unwary listener could approach this expecting a Yawning Man type affair. But if this Chicago-based three piece has its heart in the desert, it certainly isn’t the one in Palm Springs. There’s nothing remotely ‘desert’, or psychedelic about this band; in fact, the title of their last release, The Desert Winter, says it all: their sound is less sun-baked, more blackened; or specifically, ‘blackened doom of the American Southwest.’
The more I delved into the aims of Canyon Of The Skull, the more I became intrigued. From looking at the track titles, Ghost Dance and Sun Dance, what I initially feared was a sketchy case of cultural appropriation is anything but. Guitarist Erik Ogershok, himself Native American, often appears cagey about the specific meaning of his songs which, of course, adds to the overall mystery surrounding the project, reinforced by the lack of lyrics. Still, it’s clear from the song titles and imagery that the Native American story is at the heart of this record.
And, ignorant as I am of Native American music, I wasn’t prepared for the sound of this album: the riffs are more than a little blackened at the edges, they’re full-on charcoal. The opening bars of Ghost Dance really throw you off guard with chest-beating defiance, and so they should, given that the original Ghost Dance movement was a powerful resistance against colonial expansion. The triumphant opening riff morphs into a chugging juggernaut that creeps onto a gorgeously shadowed plain of stripped-back doom, before the juggernaut kicks back in beneath some spectral tremolo lead. It builds and builds, with the merest hint of blast beats, before fading in a gentle caress of traditional percussion.
The triumphant opening riff morphs into a chugging juggernaut that creeps onto a gorgeously shadowed plain of stripped-back doom…
Sun Dance weighs in at whopping 34 minutes and kicks off in a different vein, with laid-back reverb that sounds haunting and Western – we’re almost in Fade To Black territory – before a wall of fuzzy, lo-fi distortion smashes through and we’re plunged back into a hypnotic mire of doom. After 24 minutes, those blast beats break out, but here they’re much more prominent, feeling formulaic and somewhat forced. But then, when you read up on the suffering and sacrifice inherent in the traditional Sun Dance, perhaps the discomposing feeling they bring is somewhat intended.
I’ll be honest, after a couple of listens I came away feeling like something was missing from this record. The reason bands on the psych side of metal get away with insane track lengths and endless repetition is because their riffs tend to be drawling and immersive. On Ghost Dance in particular, the riffs are sharp and metallic and there are passages where you’re bolt-upright, waiting for something to happen. But after the fourth or fifth listen, I began to appreciate its stark subtlety.
This might not be for everyone and it’s certainly a record that you have to meet on its own terms. Most importantly though, without getting all Anthropology 101, it raises interesting questions about the universal power of the ‘blackened’ sound and the ways that music – and metal – can morph and educate; I’m especially interested in how Canyon Of The Skull came to this sound and if, and where, it references indigenous sounds and rhythms. There is so much context surrounding this record, it’s impossible to take it at face value. Approach with patience and a willingness to delve deeper and you won’t be disappointed.
Scribed by: Fossil