Common wisdom has it that a band’s second album is a proving ground. Whatever novelty it had from the debut has worn out; either the band can rest on its laurels and repeat its successful performance or else find something new that pushes boundaries. On True Widow’s follow up to 2008’s solid self-titled debut, the Texas trio takes a third but equally successful route: the band pares its sound down to its barest elements and thus bests its earlier album at its own game. Where the first album provided a nice slow desert revamp of ‘90s shoegaze and grunge tropes, As High as the Highest Heavens and from the Center to the Circumference of the Earth makes these references into something new, what the band calls “stonegaze”, minimal expanses of painfully slow, but overwhelmingly effective heavy rock songs.
True Widow plays so slowly that it seems impossible. The best track on the album, “NH”, has a near-Black Sabbath riff of heavy guitar doubled with fuzzy bass — but the song is slower than even Sabbath would do it. The drums crash with every chord, but there is so much space between that the reverberation takes over the playing. On top of this, Dan Philips, who doubles as guitarist, sings with a weary ache the simple and inscrutable lyrics, “Out in the hue and cry / I know I have been a liar / And of the curtain call / I know where I’ll go this time”. Though the nearly seven-minute-long track only goes through this single verse twice (once fuzzy, once clean), and there is no real chorus to speak of, it never feels dragging. The rhythm plods along, but the long drawn-out dynamics are breathtaking.
Bassist Nikki Estill sings as well with a similar vocal approach to Philips: slow and narcotic. The feminine touch brings to mind some ‘90s touchstones, like the Breeders in a K hole, or a minimalist My Bloody Valentine. But Estill doesn’t really lighten things up. She sings on the pounding opener, “Jackyl”, which sets the tone for the whole album of sludgy shoegaze and spaced-out singing. Compared to the first album, Philips has shed some of his more obvious grunge influences. His voice mixes elements of Will Oldham and Josh Homme, sweet but weary. When Estill and Philips harmonize, an indelible sweetness overlays the doomed rawness of the music.
The album sticks to a pretty consistent formula of heavy, slow, and dreamy. The internal space each song has conjures up evening desert stretches of limitless clouds and sky. The Western feel of restraint and aggression in the reverb-heavy music gets tempered by the sensitive inwardness of the enigmatic but emotional lyrics. Just by looking at the song titles, like “Blooden Horse”, “Skull Eyes”, and “Doomser”, you would think this is a metal album. But the lyrics, however strange, don’t quite match with the genre these tough names evoke. The major feeling is a sense of awkward longing that bespeaks lost love.
True Widow allows a couple breaks from form, however. On “Boaz”, Philips screeches into a loud guitar solo that replays the vocal melody (like a Nirvana guitar solo). This is the peak of energy so far in the album and the first moment of what could be called excess instrumentation. But the next and shortest song, “Night Witches”, blasts in with high-pitched quarter notes, which is fast for this album, and drummer Timothy Starks’ pounds out his steadiest beat, as if the band was actually sure it wanted to continue from one chord to the next. Still, “Night Witches” isn’t quite a rocker; it has that same faraway feel, the thousand yard stare of a high plains drifter.
By the nine-minute closer, “Doomser”, you know exactly what to expect, and though it is dark and stormy and all too much, you still want more. Perhaps that longing explains why the song, which like the others seems to grind to a halt just to start back up again, finally does end in ethereal feedback noise, like a bunch of ghosts walked into the studio after the band left and began to play their instruments. Ghostly or not, True Widow has a traditional rock band makeup and uses traditional rock sounds, but it does something different in its minimalist aesthetic. The songs are a dialogue of fuzz bass and searching guitar notes with the contours barely sketched in by the drums. Minimalism packs a mean punch; True Widow gets you in the gut.