Amid the clamour of frogs and crickets, an owl calls. Through the cypress trees, a down-tuned guitar plays a plaintive melody. It’s joined by a second guitar, then a harmonica and a slide guitar. A mournful minute later, the drummer chops at his snare, signalling the start of the ritual, and a preposterous wall of fuzz kicks in.
And with this carefully calculated build-up, Italian trio Lunar Swamp kicks off UnderMudBlues: crushing fuzz played at a stately, doomy pace, with drums understated and nearly subliminal. The bellowing baritone vocals are those of a high priest who’s just summoned a mad horde of elemental spirits, whipping them into a frenzy to do his bidding. It’s blues, but where Robert Johnson lamented the hellhound on his trail, Lunar Swamp are holding the leash.
These guys are well aware of the power of the blues, both as a musical expression of sorrow, and as a ritual antidote, and they’ve cranked up both the music and the hoodoo to create something otherworldly. Sometimes the blues is more obvious, as in the shuffling bridge of The Crimson River, with vocalist Mark Wolf’s harmonica slithering across.
It’s blues, but where Robert Johnson lamented the hellhound on his trail, Lunar Swamp are holding the leash…
More often the blues is there, but subverted; the close of The Crimson River sees the band hit the same groove as they do in the bridge, but doggedly refuse the tell-tale blues chord changes. Likewise, the opening of Magic Circle At Twin Moons launches into an imposing blues groove, only to hit a jarring lick just before the vocals kick in. They pull off the same trick after the bridge – touching the brakes for a second, just to remind you who’s in charge.
So Lunar Swamp give you a groove, and sit on it for as long as it takes to get you to submit, but they know when it’s time to change, time to misdirect. You don’t get to do that if you don’t know the music. They’ve mastered it: bent it to their will.
It all adds up to a patient, conscious, and deliberate record, from a band who can summon primal forces but remain firmly in control. It won’t impress blues purists, and won’t much reward the casual listener, but there’s heaps of blues under the mud, and heaps of subtlety under the fuzz.
Scribed by: Rob Bryant