When you specialize in a musical form a blunt and primitive as stoner metal, you’re drawing from the exact same well as all the other stoner bands do, faithfully mining the same lumbering tempos as Black Sabbath, the same monstrous riffs and cymbal crashes as the Melvins and Kyuss, and the same psychedelic elements as Sleep. What a band does with such seminal sounds is especially important in stoner metal: you can either take the no-frills approach and attack the style with faithful, albeit unoriginal fury, or you can try your damndest to put a fresh, original spin on a genre that prides itself on being simultaneously simple and punishing. Add the fact that those oldsters in the Melvins came along in 2006 and raised the bar yet again with one of their best albums yet (the stupendous A Senile Animal), and the task becomes even more daunting. There are bands out there, though, that are smart enough to know how to set themselves apart from the rest; Miami’s Torche found the right balance between jarring chords and enticing vocal melodies on their contagious 2005 debut, and on the other side of the country, Oakland’s Totimoshi has taken an equally fascinating approach.
Veterans of the indie metal underground for nearly a decade now, the trio, led by the songwriting duo of singer/guitarist Antonio Aguilar and bassist Meg Castellanos, might toil away in relative obscurity, but if there was any justice in this world, they’d be attracting the rapt attention of curious indie rock fans gladly hopping on the “hipster metal” bandwagon. Their sound is surprisingly accessible; of course, Aguilar’s guitars are constantly the focal point of the Totimoshi sound, but underneath the pile driving distortion is a cleaner, jam-like sound that smacks more of Built to Spill at times. Their 2002 album ?Mysterioso?, re-released in 2005, hinted at big things to come, and album number four has everything falling into place. If only folks would take notice.
Taking its title from the Spanish word for “thief” (how appropriate for a stoner band), Ladrón accentuates those mastodonian riffs with a decidedly Southern aesthetic, displaying subtle hints of Tex-Mex one minute, and rustic Americana the next. The fact that producer Page Hamilton (that’s right, the dude from Helmet) presents it all in a cozy, intimate mix that at first seems to work against the tried-and-true formula but winds up conveying an intimacy rarely heard in the genre, only adds to Ladrón‘s uniqueness.
For all the stylistic variety, however, the riff remains central, exemplified perfectly on the rumbling, sober title track, which opens the album. Starting with a roughly hewn, yet melodic riff that would not sound out of place on an early record by the Drive-By Truckers or Slobberbone, the song doesn’t so much take off, as slowly, methodically build momentum like a locomotive. The trio launches into an extended, dirge-like jam, downshifts into an even more plodding opening verse, finally hitting top speed three and a half minutes through, and by then, this sucker is unstoppable, Luke Herbst’s pummeling, insistent percussion underscoring Aguilar’s mellifluous riffs which serve as the song’s refrain. The song’s latter half is an impeccable exercise in walking the line between classic metal and accessible indie rock, the combination of power and melody good enough to unite both factions in a sweaty mass up pumping, clenched fists.
“In Virgo” and “The Dance of Snakes” are considerably more taut, the latter cut sounding as serpentine as its title, Castellano’s wavering bassline fueling the tune with a sumptuous, unrelenting groove. The instrumental “Viva Zapata” bears a remarkable similarity to Mastodon’s current prog rock-goes-sludge incarnation, save for an attention-grabbing bridge that features the kind of muted guitar notes one would hear on an early Crazy Horse record. Elsewhere, “The Hide” seethes, the tension threatening to burst, finally doing so in a chorus that smacks of the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa.
Ladrón caps off what has been an amazing year for Crucial Blast records, who with such other artists as Genghis Tron, Geisha, Black Elk, and Across Tundras, has brought us some of the most fascinating heavy releases of 2006, and we can only hope Totimoshi can profit from metal’s recent resurgence among the indie scenesters. For now, they can only keep bravely treading water, waiting to catch that next big wave and get the kind of crossover attention they deserve.