Review: Lord Buffalo ‘Tohu Wa Bohu’

Picture yourself up in Texas Hill Country. Where it’s all limestone, cacti, and wildflowers. The sky is a vast canopy, the surrounding terrain all rolling and endless. The cool morning air suspended and heavy. You’re up among the trees and you can see out to a horizon that reaches far beyond. You’re at one with your surroundings and self…

Lord Buffalo ‘Tohu Wa Bohu’

Okay, I’ve never been to Texas Hill Country, or come close, but listening to Lord Buffalo‘s Tohu Wa Bohu, an album inspired by such terrain, had me picturing that scene from the first note. This album creates an atmosphere that lets you drift off to someplace else. An imagined version of the place, sure, but there’s a special magic to music that evokes such a vivid sense of place.

Lord Buffalo is from Austin, Texas and formed in 2012. Their music is variously described with terms such as mud folk and gothic Americana. The press release from Blues Funeral Recordings mentions shoegaze and influences such as Swans, Sabbath, Morricone and Badalamenti. I can hear glimpses of all of these, but my sense of their sound is something between Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. A contemporary and mystical folk menagerie with vocals that call to mind Mark Lanegan and Nick Cave.

Whatever comparison you want to draw, Tohu Wa Bohu is dark, brooding, earthy, and languid, but utterly captivating and alive. If you get the feeling from the previous descriptors that this might be in danger of being too heavy on ponderous drones or meandering digressions – it’s not. The underlying import here is the sense of song and storytelling, like the folk tradition insists, and as such Lord Buffalo always leads with melody, driven by quirky and unusual ideas incorporated into their writing, instrumentation, and production. The result is a wonderful listen that’s emotive, uplifting, and no less than a total pleasure from start to finish.

Raziel emerges slowly with droning strings that call to mind a gradually clearing mist, a melody lifting from the haze. It’s like a Texan version of the opening of Aguirre: Wrath of God. With its slowly building guitar riff and distant drums, it’s the first example of the interesting production dynamic this album has, where some instruments sound clearer and closer, others more distant or submerged, and then things swap around within the span of the same song. The result is a palpable and shifting sense of space and atmosphere.

‘Waiting in the evening for rain to come’ drawls the opening vocal, a steady pace leading to an abrupt stop before distortion pedals are stomped and the riff bursts forth, boosted by a pounding trashcan snare. This is one of these albums loaded with detail, meticulously crafted instrumentation, and carefully arranged sounds. The style isn’t totally unfamiliar, but unlike similar approaches the compositions here are compact, lean, and varied. There’s no bloated tracks that endlessly repeat and wear out ideas.

Lord Buffalo has a unique character and while you can pick out influence or intent, none of that really matters to the overall experience. Just listen to it and let it take you away…

The unusually named Halle Berry sounds a lot like Nick Cave. The vocal delivery and references to The Bible give it the sound of a subdued track from Let Love In, albeit more steeped in mellow cool than something despondent or sinister. With a steady beat, effortlessly expressive guitar that snakes through here and there, and sparse piano notes tinkling in the mix – this song is ice cold.  The dirty bass struts and swaggers while drums shuffle and sway and include a genius-stroke sprinkling of double-kick fills.

Dog Head is a sombre and introspective affair, but not how you might expect. Starting off with minimal guitar, delicate piano and drawling vocals, it soon incorporates a blend of clean strings and distorted guitar that creates a pretty gnarly drone which forms the foundation for pained vocals that edge toward a howling wail. Heavy handed drums deliver slow and satisfying fills and before you know it, it’s over. Lord Buffalo pack more ideas into four minutes than other bands do in one 25-minute track, and crucially, everything fits and flows.

Title track Tohu Wa Bohu calls to mind Tom Waits with its quirky rubber band bass, an odd tom-heavy beat, and the sound of a home-made snare drum. The muted guitar sounds like slow-burn 50s rockabilly, and the gorgeous chorus is nothing short of a warm reassurance. As ever, the strings are well-placed and bring out subtle atmospheres, at times sounding eastern and dramatic. The closing counterpoint vocals are controlled casual chaos and show that this band puts a lot into their songs, but never too much of it. It’s a skill to know when to use just enough, and while it can take some bands years to figure it out, it seems like it just comes naturally to Lord Buffalo.

The album is a treasure trove of subtle sounds and ideas, things to discover while you drift off and let the music take you away. And as much as I’m picking up on these twists, turns, and quirks, the overarching experience is always the songs, led by vocals that have a rich, comforting quality – melodic, serene, and full-hearted.

Final track Llano Estacado No 2 ratchets up the tension with unnerving chants and a tensely pregnant build-up of beating drums and scraping strings, but rather than crash forth and explode, the cacophony fades away and falls apart. One last unexpected turn from a band which does something unusual and exciting with every song without ever sounding contrived.

I’m not sure if this release fits neatly anywhere, and I’m reluctant to recommend it on the basis of being a fan of any particular band or musical style. Lord Buffalo has a unique character and while you can pick out influence or intent, none of that really matters to the overall experience. Just listen to it and let it take you away.

Label: Blues Funeral Recordings
Band Links: Official | Facebook | Bandcamp | Twitter | Instagram

Scribed by: Josuph Price