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Formed in the early 1990s by Josh Hart (guitar, synths...) and Chad Rush (drums), Chowder's sole full length album was only released in 2012 and oh boy, it's good. Hart, known for his contributions to many important doom bands located in Maryland's metropolis such as Earthride, Unorthodox or Revelation. John Brenner, leader of Revelation would later join Chowder before their split, did some recording, mixing and produced this album and also released their previous extended play on his label Bland Hand Records.
What we have here is weird and intricate instrumental progressive doom metal with an extensive use of sonic layers and a great sense of intertwined bass and guitar dynamics. The heavy guitar riffs are a force to reckon with and the loud, in your face, bass is a clear highlight (it would had been fun to hear an album with Brenner though). To be a successful instrumental band, I can see two major strategies. The first is to be as blistering and intense as possible even though your approach can be interpreted as simplistic (see the excellent Karma to Burn) and the second is to adopt a luxurious and plentiful approach. Chowder, like their peculiar name could indicate, is a rich and creamy soup of many good things.
Blending unusual and familiar doom riffs with a wide array of additional instruments (synthesizers, mellotron, theremin, acoustic guitars..), Chowder knows how to build interesting songs. They also mix longer songs like the titanic 18 minutes title track (the band itself called it their “Hemispheres” in relation to the classic Rush album) with shorter, incisive and catchy numbers. The musicianship is impressive (necessary for an instrumental band, obviously) and the songwriting is tight and airy. There's not a lot of solos but there's great technical leads and riffing (it's not Blotted Science or anything too saccharine and lifeless though) but it's fun to hear some traditional doom metal combined with space and psychedelic elements.
The band mentions the legendary Canadian proggers in the introduction of “Insidious”:
“Alright. It’s Saturday night, I have no date, a two-liter bottle of Shasta, and my all-Rush mixtape. Let’s rock." -Fry in Futurama
There's some judicious use of samples throughout the release like the opening of album closer “Custody” with the vicious sound of a man being whipped, possibly from a movie such as The Passion of the Christ. These are always fun to give some personality and flavoring to the music since there's no vocals or lyrics and if it's used sporadically like it is here.
Chowder had some members who were also in hardcore bands and I guess there's a slight sludge influence here amongst the spacey progressive doom core. There's also a lot of stoner rock/metal but the melting pot still works well and sounds totally cohesive despite the numerous genres.
They're definitely not for newcomers to the genre, well the progressive doom genre isn't either but it's high value material composed with care and ingenuity. It's Rush mixed with quirky alternative rock like Primus and a huge dose of Maryland doom and it couldn't be more interesting to these ears. It's sad the band was laid to rest though since they were evolving in a rare but rewarding genre.
Metantoine's Magickal Realm
Chowder is not Josh Hart's first waltz in the doom ballroom, having put in many years in acts like Earthride, Revelation and Unorthodox; but it might just prove his most interesting and distinct when viewed against the other projects he's worked with. Formed far back in the 90s, and admittedly rather slow and sparse in its recorded output, the trio (also featuring drummer Chad Rush and bassist/cellist Doug Williams) became more active in the past 5-6 years, releasing first a demo and EP, and later recording the material for this album in the year 2008. So, already Passion Rift might seem a few years out of place, but frankly it takes such a fresh perspective on its composition that it's nonetheless timeless and compelling, because there's really little else I can think of that sounds quite like it...
Take an instrumental/stoner rock act like Karma to Burn and then amplify its inherent range of dynamics, then add in spaced-out elements like a Mellotron, multiple synthesizer waves and more eclectic and exotic instruments like a theremin, Taurus pedal, and cello. This is more or less the broth from which the sound is formed, and then splayed out in varied and fascinating riffs that keep a listener's attention regardless of the fact that there are no lyrics or vocals involved (apart from an occasional sample, like the Futurama bit used in "Insidious"). Individual tracks range from brief, extraterrestrial visions ("Mysterioid") to massive flights of atmosphere and primal ambiance (the 18 minute "Passion Rift"), and yet the album's sheer dramatic tension seems quite fluid and intact despite its jarring and oft disparate ambitions. Best of all, the riffs on this thing are fucking beastly, like the Primus meets Fu Manchu explosion "SaltCreep" or the darkened, twisting sludge bruiser "Custody" which closes out the album. Hell, some of the raw, explosive context of the writing even reminded me of wild Japanese schizo/funk/rock soundtracks to cartoons like Sakigake! Cromartie High or FLCL. Maybe a little Flower Travelin' Band alongside the Sabbath and Hawkwind.
The guitar tone and loosely 'jam' aesthetics remain consistent through the entirety, but otherwise they play with a lot of rhythms and tempos that are as often punishing as they are psychedelic, pissed off as they are progressive. I found myself wondering throughout Passion Rift if I would have preferred a vocal presence, and am left relatively undecided. I can't think they would hurt any, especially a unique, aggressive voice, but at the same time their absence doesn't really hinder the music all that much, due to its reflexive and relatively free form nature. Chowder feels like a cockfight between the whimsical and darkly-mannered, and it's served well by a bright, bold production that doesn't sacrifice its jamming and driving ethics for excess, overdubbed plasticity. I can't say that every single riff here sticks, and occasionally the transitions will seem a little sporadic for their own good, but as someone who has suffered so much samey stoner/desert rock, sludge and doom, this trio has so much going for it that they're bound to impress anyone seeking a more transcendental variety betwixt these niches. Passion Rift is fun, frivolous, and ferocious, both in looks and sound, and I hope we'll experience more of this project in the near future.