Spiritual Beggars: Another Way to Shine / Mantra III / Ad Astra / On Fire
Swedish stoner-prog takes us back to the future.
Spiritual Beggars are a back-to-basics stoner/grunge/thrash outfit from Sweden whose prevailing style is raucous, riff-heavy rock and roll. Featuring guitar work from Michael Amott of Carcass and Arch Enemy, with bass from Sharlee D'Angelo (Arch Enemy, Witchery) and vocals from Janne Christofferson, the band's early work has long been difficult to find in the USA, though the albums were reissued in the UK in 2007. This ressue of four early albums will give listeners who may have missed them a chance to catch up. Fans of hard-driving but surprising music from the likes of Kyuss, Monster Magnet, Naam and Graveyard will find these records well worth a spin. Moreover, the simultaneous release of albums spanning the years 1996 to 2002 serves to shed light on the evolution of the band.
The reissues kick off with 1996's Another Way to Shine, which launches from your speakers courtesy of "Magik Spell" and its irresistibly snaky riff (and plenty of cowbell). This is a guitar-centric album: thick layers of distorted riffs form the backbone of every song. Happily, the band has the chops to ensure they're not repetitive, courtesy of tempo shifts, rhythmic variation and so on. "Misty Valley" is the standout tune here, a multi-part epic that shifts from straight-ahead stomper to sweeping, phase-shifted power chords laced with screeching solos. Rock and roll, in other words.
Standout track or no, there are plenty of other terrific rockers on Another Way to Shine, including the midtempo chug-a-lug of "Nowhere to Go" and the almost poppy chord progressions of "Entering Into Peace," which could easily have found a home on 1970s rock radio. There's not a weak track on the record, and album closer "Past the Sound of Whispers" sends the listener away on a satisfying bed of molten riffage and half-spoken, free-associating vocals.
Many bands would have difficulty following up such a strong album, but Spiritual Beggars wisely avoids the trap of simply trying to replicate their success. 1998's Mantra III throws some new sounds into the mix, including more keyboards, and leads off with "Superbossanova," a lounge-jazz instrumental that's about as far from stoner rock as it's possible to be without, say, clarinets. Follow-up "Homage to the Betrayed" brings us back to familiar, hit-it-really-hard-with-a-stick territory. "Homage" is a good deal more thrashy and shouty than anything on Another Way to Shine -- and considerably less fun, too.
At a whopping 15 songs and 70 minutes of music, Mantra III inevitably contain excess baggage. The first two tracks could be dropped, since it's not until the straightforward rock of "Monster Astronauts" that we feel we've safely arrived at the start of the album. The good news is that after the shaky start, the band reels off a string of strong tunes: the stoner anthem "Euphoria," the quick headbanger "Broken Morning", the hypnotic "Lack of Prozac", and "Bad Karma" with its fuzz bass and nifty guitar sounds. At this point you're barely halfway through the record, and probably wondering if the band can maintain the quality.
The answer, surprisingly enough, is yes. Not every tune is a classic, but apart from the first two tracks there is admirably little bloat on this long, long record, and plenty of nuggets in the back half to make listening a pleasure. "Send Me a Smile" channels more of that '70s hard rock vibe, while "Inside Charmer" kicks off with a recorder duet -- don't laugh, it worked for Zeppelin. "Sad Queen Boogie" brings back the keyboards for a classic blues-rock progression which is the aural equivalent of a well-worn, much-loved flannel shirt.
Ad Astra was the band's release in 2000, and fans curious as to what the new millennium would bring the band received the answer: a comfortable continuation of the previous album, with a somewhat harsher, more "metal" edge. Having given keyboards increased prominance on Mantra III, the band continues the trend here, along with the requisite fuzzy riffs, hollered vocals and guitar effects -- wah-wah and phase shift, sustain and reverb -- that has been the band's bread and butter from the start. As usual, the album kicks off with a storming rocker: "Left Brain Ambassadors" is a take-no-prisoners tune notable mainly for the keyboard break (!) amidst all the shuffling guitar riffage.
After that, it's power chords and more power chords. "Angel of Betrayal" works a tasty guitar line into a punchy, three-minute-plus stomp, while "Goddess" is an equally efficient riffage delivery system. With eleven songs clocking in at an hour, Spiritual Beggars manage to simultaneously tighten their focus and expand the range of individual songs. The sound is fuller as well.
Strangely enough, this doesn't prevent the album from feeling a tad generic. "Until the Morning" is pleasantly doomy, but few other songs on the record stick in the memory, although the anthemic sweep of album closer "Mantra" end the proceedings on a strong note. Some tunes, such as "Ad Aspera Per Aspera," "Blessed" and "Save Your Soul," sound more like generic metal tunes than anything unique, with rough vocal shrieking substituting for musical intensity. After the inventiveness of the previous two records, this one feels by-the-numbers and more than a touch uneven.
The fourth of the reissues is 2002's On Fire. Perhaps conscious of the limitations they had run up against with Ad Astra, here the band explore new sonic territory to a degree previously unknown to good effect. The typical metal stylings are dialed back, and a looser, jammy feel comes forth in "Black Feathers", "Lunatic Fringe", and "Look Back." There is a real Deep Purple-goes-prog vibe at times, and unusual sounds crop up throughout, presumably the result of studio knob-twisting, but the effects never overwhelm the tunes at their core. On Fire is both a welcome return to form and an expansion of sonic territory that looks ahead to future albums.
2011 saw a live release from the band, following their last studio album, 2010's Return to Zero, which brought new singer Appolo Papathanasio into the lineup. Doubtless this will mark another new era for the band, but in the meantime, aficianados of throbbing riff-rock have much to explore in this set of fine releases.