[23 September 2010]
There are so many different sounds within the genre of doom metal, so many shades of Black Sabbath, that you start to believe, from listening to all the offspring, you really know what Sabbath sounds like. The essence of Sabbath has been distilled and repeated ad nauseam. Dwarr, indeed, is largely indebted to Sabbath. But Animals reminds you of something that often gets lost in all of the Sabbaths Jr. that make it onto record. Black Sabbath was weird. Though Dwarr recorded this album in the mid-‘80s, a peak time for heavy metal, it makes you realize that Sabbath, the father of all metal, was really a ‘60s band—a psychedelic band above all. These guys did some drugs and it is quite apparent from listening to the albums.
Before going into it though, some background on Dwarr is necessary. Dwarr is Duane Warr, a lone kid who in his free time began writing and recording songs at home. Warr plays all the instruments on the album save for Ron Sparks’s added percussion. Animals is his second album, but according to enthusiasts it is his most metallic. He pressed the record himself, which accounts for its limited availability, a surefire way to start the mythmaking process. According to legend—this is the other, more important part of the myth—he blew his mind out while working on the next record, burned up all of his gear, all of his tapes, renounced metal, and became a born-again Christian. Years later, Warr recorded a couple more albums with explicit Christian themes, though Animals itself has the typical metal invocation of both Christ and the Devil. Fast forward to 2010 and Drag City steps in to make this record available again as part of its nugget reissue series.
Now you may wonder, in a case such as this, is the record actually worth unearthing? Years of legend can overinflate a reputation and eclipse a real appreciation of the album. But these days, when it seems like everyone can get a chance to at least release a song or two on the Internet, why begrudge a guy a second chance over two decades after he put in the hard work? He had a grand vision even if he couldn’t fully execute it. Duane Warr isn’t a great musician, nor is he a great singer. But there is something charming about this album: Like the best Sabbath, it’s weird.
I imagine a kind of background narrative to the album, where Warr goes from a severe lack of confidence to full-on metal superhero. On the title track that opens the album, his voice is a raspy whisper, not a scream, decrying that we are “going back to the days of animals”. The song ends with a weird echo of the last line, as if he wasn’t sure the song was over. But by mid-album, his self-assurance grows. This only levels out his songwriting to make the Sabbath influence more prominent. “Ghost Lovers” and “Just Keep Running” are good songs, but they could have been on Master of Reality. The chorus of “Ghost Lovers” is worth quoting because of its inscrutable weirdness: “We are ghost lovers one and all / We love to play our silly games in the night”. What? As Warr’s confidence grows, his songwriting—if not his lyrics—becomes more straightforward, and this takes away some of the charm.
The charm of the album comes mainly from psychedelic heritage. The best songs have a strange linearity, as if while he was recording he kept coming up with new ideas and decided to put them in there for the hell of it. This is a marker of all the great psychedelic bands, like Love and early Pink Floyd and, yes, early Sabbath. The thing is that Warr doesn’t execute any of this very well. There is something very screwy going on with the time, which may be explained by the fact that he was playing with himself. The rhythm shifts all over the place, the guitar tracks aren’t well lined-up—he plays well ahead of the beat. And the solos aren’t technically good, though they are joyfully noisy. There is more Greg Ginn than Tony Iommi here. The two instrumentals, “Chocolate Mescaline” and the aptly named “Time” (which has a tick-tock repetitive guitar melody) are hilarious.
The other side of Dwarr’s charm comes from a sense of humor in the album, even though it’s not really meant to provoke laughter. Warr was totally earnest and probably going through some heavy shit. But this earnestness verges into the realm of parody in the vein of Spinal Tap. Warr’s ideas are so over the top that they are funny. You only need to look at the picture of young Duane rocking out in a vest with no shirt to get what I mean.
Despite its badness, I have a soft spot for this album. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s so bad it’s good. But it’s definitely interesting, at the very least as a curiosity. Dwarr’s legend should live on, because he is one of the few who has mined the weirdness from the Sabbath influence without going too far into the cliché metal territory of wizards and dwarves and Satan and so on. Dwarr was just a dude trying hard in his basement to make a rocking record. And this is a worthy tribute to this quest of the everyman rock hero.