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Red Fang

Whales and Leeches

(Relapse; US: 15 Oct 2013; UK: 15 Oct 2013)

In an age where band-endorsed dildos and burgers topped with communion wafers are used as a means of promotion and shit-stirring, what chance has a blue-collared band got?


Gimmickry and theatrics have always been an essential part of metal, but as bands, such as Ghost, perfect their eye-rollin’ schtick and soak up a lot of the press’s attention, this affects the exposure of grass-roots groups down the chain that only have the music they create to rely on. (In a perfect world this would be all you’d need for success, even though spectacle can be a welcome distraction, if it’s backed by strong songs.)

Red Fang is one of those “blue-collared” bands.  After spending a couple of years trying to spread its music outside of Portland, Oregon, it was a hilarious music video directed by Whitey McConnaughy (a friend of the band) that saw Red Fang don armour made from beer cans to wage war against a bunch of cosplay fanatics for the song “Prehistoric Dog”, that brought the band the recognition it deserved.


Sometimes in life all you need is that one break, and after the repeat (beer) belly-laughs that followed with the video for “Wires”, taken from the band’s Relapse debut Murder the Mountains, it was interesting to see a band free from pageantry adapt to the circumstances of the time and create something off-the-wall yet calculated to catch the transitory attention spans of internet-dependent music fans. On the other hand, by coming to the attention of many through side-splitting music videos, Red Fang gave its new audience a misinformed notion of what the band is all about, which, for anyone familiar with Red Fang, is only one can from the six-pack.


Ultimately, without taking away the importance of getting your name out there, it all returns to the music. You can shove as many rubber dildos in the face of punters as you like but if you are all pomp and no substance, you are doomed once the next flash-in-the-pan appears brandishing a silly gimmick, phallic or otherwise.


Looking back, Murder the Mountain was an important release for the band as the Red Fang’s rollicking grooves and keen ear for a raucous melody caused whispers that these four guys may be the next big thing – and that they have more going on between their dirt-encrusted ears than you might have thought initially. The band’s signing to Relapse Records provided it with the backing of a label more than capable of getting its accessible sludge rock to the ears of the same fans that pushed Mastodon to the position of contemporary rock stars. But the real judge of whether Red Fang is set to scale the same heights as its inspirations – Mastodon, the Melvins, Queens of the Stone Age, Unsane, Helmet, amongst others – is not about how many YouTube views the band’s videos get, but the quality of the music that comprises Red Fang’s second album for Relapse, Whales and Leeches.


Whales and Leeches should help Red Fang build upon its ever-burgeoning fan base, mostly because the band will tour the hell out of this release in every shit-stained dive available. Musically, however, it’s not the raging triumph hoped for. There is a noticeable lack of vocal hooks, and the songwriting, with the major exception being the beastly doom of “Dawn Rising” (featuring the wounded pipes of YOB’s Mike Scheidt), very rarely strays from a predictably straightforward template.


Sure, being straightforward can often be a positive trait in a world where complexity has taken hold and sucked the free spirit from rock and metal. But with songs like “Blood Like Cream”, the Queens of the Stone Age hip-shakin’ swagger is let down by a juvenile and redundant chorus of “Turn it up! / Turn it up! / Turn it up!” A glaring lack of vocal hooks stunts “No Hope”, too, and the song’s keen punk drive runs out of gas because of a lack of destination, vocally speaking. “Voices of the Dead” is an upbeat ‘90s alt rock song, and nothing more stimulating: treading the furrow of mid-tempo sludge-grunge stuffed with ham-fisted vocal harmonies. Elsewhere, “1516” and “Crows in Swine” venture too close to Mastodon’s The Hunter-by-way-of-Melvins for their own good, and due to the technical limitations of Red Fang’s players, both songs come off the worse for wear because of the lineage they draw from.


Taken on their individual merit, the rest of the songs hold up quite well in terms of displaying Red Fang’s strengths: taut, low-slung grooves that sound tighter than a recession-riddled politician. Opener “DOEN” recalls High on Fire’s love for causing volcanic riff eruptions and the head-down, no-nonsense drive of this song is a victory for the band. So too is the bouncy “Behind the Light”, whose vocal hooks and raw rhythmic jives would have slotted well into Murder the Mountains.


Interestingly, the slower paced songs are where Red Fang excel on Whales and Leeches. In addition to the aforementioned “Dawn Rising” – a song that peers outside the confines Red Fang set themselves this time out, with its polluted core riff and its menacing unease – final track, “Every Little Twist”, provides an obvious highlight. There aren’t many overt surprises within, although the use of a Theremin and subtle cosmic textures are always welcome, but the dual vocal harmonies will surely delight fans of Nirvana, while the Kyuss-ian groove will satiate those disappointed by Vista Chino’s debut this year.


Disappointment hangs heavy over Whales and Leeches, too. Red Fang had a massive opportunity to kick aside the entertainment factor of its music videos and knuckle down and write a worthy follow-up to its break-out album to push the band forward as a creative concern. Overall, Whales and Leeches amounts to a frustrating release, because when the band try something adventurous instrumentally or vocally – as heard on “DOEN”, “Dawn Rising”, and “Every Little Twist” – these road-hardened grafters really kick their potential in the guts. It’s a pity the kicking doesn’t occur from beginning to end. Next time, maybe?

Rating:

Dean Brown has an obsessive love of music in every shape and form, with a deep respect for bands that play from the heart. He is a Contributing Editor here at Popmatters, writer for Last Rites (www.lastrit.es), About.com/heavymetal (heavymetal.about.com/), and his work can also be found at soundshock.com, scratchtheSurface-webzine.com, metalireland.com, tighttothenail.com, amongst others. He is also a columnist for the quarterly digital zine Backlit (www.backlitzine.com). Dean can be found on twitter: @reus85


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Red Fang - "Blood Like Cream"
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