We all lean on music in troubled times. And I think we can all agree that heavy metal provides the perfect forum to vent life’s frustrations. But it’s one thing to listen to music as a means of escape; it’s a whole other scenario to create music as a means to understand the legacy of unforeseen tragedy.
Stone Angels are from Christchurch, New Zealand, a city that was left devastated by two huge earthquakes—with the February 2011 quake leaving scores dead and injured. It is a city in ruins. I lived there for many years, and recently went back to visit. My old house lay buried under a collapsed cliff face, and my favorite haunts were nothing but crumbling buildings. For those stuck in the city life is unnerving. You might think that forming a band among such ruination would be the last thing on anyone’s mind, but not so for Stone Angels, who picked up their instruments to try and capture all that chaos and confusion on their debut, Within the Witch.
The band’s music confronts the frustrations, and exorcises the raw emotions, that come from living through catastrophe. At least, it does on their debut—there’s ample room for encompassing many other visions. And while that cathartic element looms large, Within the Witch, like all the best metal, is also just the sound of three guys laying into the world with sledgehammer blows. With a lo-fi blend of threadbare and doom-laden sludge, experimental noisome passages and oppressively thick atmospherics, the band don’t just spell out woebegone narratives, you’re right there with them. Smothered by the abrasive ambience that permeates throughout.
Sludge, especially the obnoxious downtempo filth Stone Angels provide, is perfectly suited to the vexations they seek to convey. Bands like Eyehategod, Buzzov*en and Grief laid out a sonic template for troublesome times, and while Stone Angels’ music is deeply personal and individual, there’s a similarly evocative link between the sound they brew and the complex emotions they want to communicate. “The Dark”, which kicks off Within the Witch, is sub-zero avant-sludge personified, with its chilly intro and chain-dragging riff layering on the desolate auras. “Coffin Cross”, featuring guest vocals from Marko Pavlovic, frontman for The House of Capricorn and Creeping, adds a layer of devilishness to the dissonant backbone of the album. And “Grave”, with its feedbacking stoner strut, brings some swift downbeat harmonies later on.
Of course, *Within the Witch *is not just a sludge album; there’s doom too, the arctic kind. And you can’t ignore the huge, ugly Electric Wizard-like riffs, or the more experimental and glacial Khanate-ish tempos. “White Light, White noise” features some brilliantly harsh intonations throughout, mining a minimalist and spiteful lode. And with guest vocals and additional guitars from K. Stanley— who recorded, mixed and mastered the album superbly—the song soundtracks a haunting vision of collapsed structures At least it does to my mind. “Withdrawing the Jinn” swings a huge traditional doom sword, its sluggish riffs and solos buzzing with ferocity. And “Bleeding Black” pluses with a recalcitrant blast reminiscent of the Amphetamine Reptile era, with it’s big riffs and fat bass undulating from atop a grimy rock bastion.
Everyone on Within the Witch plays their guts out. Guttural vocals from guitarist and singer SB serve as a linchpin to secure the traumatic undertones, but also as an instrument—adding a percussive or howling bite where needed. His riffs are an amp-fusing cacophony. Always teetering on the edge of fragmentation, they run from the darkly melodic and catchy to downright nasty and jarring. GE’s drumming sets an assured pace, pounding away intensely where required, but he’s just as capable of stepping back and laying down plenty of languid flourishes. And MC’s bass sits at the rumbling, corpulent heart of the album, providing the thick grooves that the band works off on the speedier sections, and the filthy grinding tones on the more astringent numbers.
At times, Within The Witch sounds like a maelstrom of dark purification, at others like the earth torn asunder. It’s fitting that Stone Angels have crafted an album that is drenched in devastation but isn’t afraid to show a little swaggering bravado now and then. Because that’s life among the wreckage—when all other instincts tell you to give up and run, you stay and fight.
Stone Angels aren’t going to embrace you, stroke your furrowed brow or tell you everything will be all right. But they have built a mighty rampart for you to stand upon as you howl bloody murder at a world filled with uncertainties.* Within The Witch *is victory over the id and a “fuck you” to unanticipated loss. Dredging the depths of belligerent metal, combining that with some metaphysical unease and throwing in some tangential wickedness, Stone Angels have come up with an album that anyone, whatever their troubles, can find some twisted solace in.