[21 July 2013]
North Carolina-based stoner metalheads ASG have released what is probably their best album in Blood Drive, a 12-track, 47-minute opus of swampy riffs, thunderous rhythms and stoner vocals reminiscent of Alice in Chains at their best. The shambolic guitar work at times calls up echoes of Crazy Horse in all their anarchic glory, but ASG is much more than a collection of references and influences. This is sludged-out, drugged-out, spaced-out riffage at its mightiest—except, of course, when it’s none of those things. Plus there’s nekkid girls inside the digipack. What else does your 16-year-old inner metalhead need?
Opening track “Avalanche” serves as a crashing, soaring statement of purpose, notwithstanding its inane lyrics about crazy gods and so forth. Jason Shi’s almost-lethargic vocals soar above the twin swamp-guitar attack of Shi and Jonah Citty, and this is the defining sound of the record: murky yet powerful, languid yet propulsive. One of the longer songs here at four and a half minutes, “Avalanche” wastes little time getting started and pounds away long enough to feel satisfying. This is true for most of the tunes here, although follow-up “Blood Drive” is the shortest song on the record, and at 3:21 feels slightly truncated.
Not every tune follows the stoner template of slowish tempos and drawn-out vocals. Both “Castlestorm” and “Hawkeye” bring a more rough-edged sound, with a jittery rhythms and hoarse vocals (that is, screams) at odds with the majority of Shi’s smoother and more interesting performances. Such moments crop up intermittently in other songs as well. By and large, though, this is a record that is very heavy but not especially aggressive. There are plenty of crashing power chords and much guitar noodling, but the band rarely seems interested in yelling at you. This is a good thing, and a pleasant change from much heavy metal convention, which often seems to measure a band’s credibility in terms of how pissed-off it can sound.
A tune such as the downtempo “Blues for Bama” is much more the norm here, with its low-key fretwork giving way to crashing waves of fuzzed-out bliss, while the positively mellow “Earthwalk” puts me in mind of Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan”, at least until the ringing chorus. Meanwhile, penultimate track “The Ladder” is a more or less perfect chug-a-lug downtempo tune, wielding a strangely triumphant chorus and heaps of grunge-inspired riffage. The Alice in Chains similarities are hard to avoid here, but it’s a great song nonetheless, and given how tidily it sits with what has gone before, its derivativeness can be forgiven.
One of the few missteps on the record is closing tune “Good Enough to Eat”, which dials back the riffs and opts for introspective strumming. The result is an album that ends on a flat note. It’s not a bad song, but “Good Enough to Eat” should have been placed somewhere earlier in the record, providing some variety to the earlier tracks while allowing “The Ladder” to send off the listener on a high note.
This is a minor criticism, however. Blood Drive is a strong album overall and a welcome sign that there is still life in the stoner rock or desert rock landscape. Guitarheads of all stripes are likely to find much to enjoy here, even those rock fans who generally shy away from “heavy metal” clichés and attitudes.