My first impression of Toronto Canada’s Sun Below was that this is just another stoner band laden with the same old genre clichés: pop occult references, token Lovecraft inclusion, heavy borrowing from the usual bands, and hammering the point home that they smoke a lot of marijuana with their weed world-building and pompous promo that includes their own made-up micro genre, ‘sativa rock’.
But it’s not exactly fair to single out one band for current trends and a typically self-aggrandizing intro, and after reading through their thorough and detailed promo stuff in full, I saw that these guys clearly work very hard. They only formed in 2018 and have already released three EPs and a single before this, their self-produced, self-released, self-titled debut full length.
Sun Below’s aesthetic, lyrics, and sonic universe is heavily indebted to Sleep, with the likes of their ‘dooman’ (or doom-human) a familiar echo of Sleep’s smoke-following weedian. The press release will sound familiar, too:
‘Lyrically, the album focuses on the Holy Drifter, his quest to discover higher meaning within visions that haunt and excite him, and his greater role in the cosmic balance of the universe. He, and the ancient herb which influences his mind, are thrust to the center of a time travel paradox that crosses realities as the sun burns low.’
This may suggest tired hero-worship and predictable THC-laced meandering, but while this album is undoubtedly full of smoked-out Sleep-inspired jamming, it’s surprisingly high energy and often emerges from the haze with flashes of something special.
Opening track Chronwall Neanderthal is a prime example of the band’s core sound. They take what they love, kick it up the ass, and create heavy tunes that are more about energy and exploration than sluggish saturation. Sun Below’s own assertion is that they are livelier than doom that plods, sludge that drags, or stoner that’s too moribund to smoke out to. This is music for motion: physical, mental, or otherwise, and it’s clear they could hone their own unique identity if they can just shake off the most blatant lifts from their heroes.
The production is notably raw and live sounding, but still heavy and full. Refreshingly, it’s not pushed to the point of being monolithic and dull, and rather than over-dialled, over-amped walls of soulless tone, the playing here has room to weave and wind with genuine attitude and drive. The band are really givin’er (as Canadians might say) and well represented with an album mix that’s balanced, lively, and capturing the moment.
They take what they love, kick it up the ass, and create heavy tunes that are more about energy and exploration than sluggish saturation…
The music never bludgeons, but sweeps, soars, and slithers, with a clarity of judgement to the arrangements and song development that makes for a complete ride that almost never loses its way. Sun Below know when to fuzz it out and drift, when to build things up, when to let rip, and when it’s time for straightforward heavy low hanging riffs.
Surprisingly, one of the band’s musical strengths is subtlety. The songs are rich with constantly evolving detail, finesse, and character. The storied drumming of Shiva Sativa, the Entwistle expressiveness of the bass on the more upbeat tracks, or the buried secrets of the gorgeous wooled out sojourn that is Bong Psalm.
Guitarist Jason Craig has a coolheaded and distinctive style of playing heavy, with a subdued snarl that ebbs and flows, crackles and sparks. But he never showboats or crushes, eschewing a wall of sound in favour of emotive expression and skillful flourish. Just check out the lead in the middle of Holy Drifter. At this stage, it seems that maybe the greatest strength of Sun Below is well-realised detail and balance, qualities that take most bands years to perfect.
The weakest moments are when the band goes to Sleep, with slightly shaky Al Cisneros impressions that are just too blatant to not be jarring and break the spell they could cast otherwise. But it feels mean-spirited to make too much of a deal about a new band borrowing from their influences. It’s not bad, it’s just that for me I can hear a lot of potential for something else. The likes of Kinetic Kief shows how they could take that Al vocal and expand upon it to reach somewhere out between Cisneros and the caustic tone of Burning Witch’s Edgy 59. Or they could make more of the hardcore vocal style from the opening track to mix things up a bit.
And whereas most of the album is invigorating, I could do without the overlong final track which serves to suck the remaining energy from the room, ending with the wholly predictable sound of a bong rip. But then it is called Solar Burnout…
Sun Below is a promising band, packed with musical ideas but a bit caught up in smoke. I could do with a completely different aesthetic, and I feel that it suggests something generic when in fact there’s a lot going on here that could be even more, but not every band wants to go somewhere totally new. All of the aforementioned self-realised selves (self-produced, self-released, etc.) indicate that this is a band with no shortage of gumption, ambition, or self-belief.
It takes more work than most people know to do mostly everything yourself, and any band putting themselves out there, and working hard, deserves respect and, more importantly, a chance. If you like the sound of high energy stoner rock inspired by Sleep that’s on the cusp of breaking out into exciting new territory, then support these guys and help them get there.
Scribed by: Josuph Price