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In times of sorrow and struggle - 86%

gasmask_colostomy, April 19th, 2017

Arguing about Crowbar is a perfectly reasonable activity to take part in, since one can see the surprisingly high scores they have obtained both for this album and Odd Fellows Rest here on the Metal Archives. However, arguing about Crowbar while actually listening to Crowbar is a different matter entirely and one that resembles the kind of argument you would have while facing off against a juggernaut while on your bicycle. Another way to put that is like this: on paper, Crowbar don't pose much of a challenge, but in the flesh (or on CD or whatever) they sure as shit get your attention.

I remember Kirk Windstein once saying that his plan with Crowbar was to find "the brown note", which would make their music so earth-shakingly heavy they would be able to sell Crowbar nappies (diapers) at gigs. Despite the fact that he was quite clearly joking, there is an element of doubt in my mind as I listen to this about how close the band came, because a song like 'Counting Daze' booms out from broad bottom-end guitars, while 'Awakening' would certainly aid the unwary in making use of that nappy with its shocking burst of speed. A lot of the appeal of Crowbar surely comes from the molten guitars and the riffs that Windstein and Sammy Pierre Duet produce: there isn't a great deal of complicated extras on this record, nor do the guitarists play anything that resembles a solo, aside from the dreamy breather that is the short instrumental 'In Times of Sorrow'. The style of Sonic Excess is thus based on attrition rather than immediate impact, meaning that you won't be instantly sucked into the music but will eventually be won over by sheer effort on the band's part. That word attrition is also useful for expressing the nature of the struggle that goes into the mood of the compositions and much of the lyrical content. As one might expect from sludge metal, nothing happens easily as though the bandmembers are being pulled back by some sticky concoction as they are trying to run and break free, causing the pace of most of the tracks to loom and lope in slow motion, which is more effective when contrasted by some sudden bursts of speed. Finally, there are also lots of references to rocks and stones and the slow trudge to recovery, which got their start back on the band's debut album, where the cover art depicted Sisyphus (or possibly Atlas, but I guess not) as he labours to push the boulder up the hill.

Anyway, all this talk about the aesthetic of Sonic Excess is nothing without some stone-cold evidence, so let's crack open some of the songs. Again, on paper, there's nothing really special to note, most of them following a vague structure and including some repeating part (riff or refrain, it's all the same), while defining factors tend to be the addition of speed, melody, or a memorable hook. On this front, 'The Lasting Dose' certainly stands tall among the songs, oozing in on melodic weight and featuring some of Windstein's most delicate vocals of his career, plus a core riff that you could headbang to and - as with all great slow riffs - hum in the shower. 'It Pours from Me' displays more propensity to play with melody in the guitars too, the key being that the melody does not counteract the heaviness but rather winds itself inside the crushing weight and reaches emotional heights. This technique is probably the greatest asset that Crowbar developed in the 10 years following their formation, since the jarring, thuggish heaviness can provide a discomfiting experience without really attracting the listener on an emotional or musical level. Here, the balance is pretty good, 'Failure to Delay Gratification', 'Awakening', and 'Repulsive in Its Splendid Beauty' making up the gnarliest, toughest contingent and 'It Pours from Me', 'Empty Room', and 'The Lasting Dose' smoothing things out to a greater degree.

Although those songs I have already pulled out are perhaps the most memorable, there is also the feeling that the album gains in intensity as it progresses, so that the latter half seems to connect more directly than 'To Build a Mountain' or 'Through the Ashes (I've Watched You Burn)', while the similar themes and constant riffs build up through accretion - to use another geology term - so that little by little we can realize the whole as one. The slowness is instrumental in this effect due to the fact that it takes some time to acclimatize to the pace, especially as Tony Constanza doesn't play drums straight under all the riffs, adding a lot of fills and diversions that prevent anything becoming too groovy or sleepy. When the aggression steps up on 'Awakening' and particularly 'Failure to Delay Gratification', however, the effect is instant and powerful. The other feature that certainly grows on one is Windstein's voice, which is simply uncomfortable to listen to at first, such is its forced dryness, but later it begins to seep into your consciousness that it's the real thing and has its own pleasant subtleties. You could imagine that you met a filthy beggar and were initially too nervous or repulsed to feel anything but aversion, though with prolonged exposure you would begin to recognize the personality and experience beneath his appearance - that's how I feel about the vocals.

Ultimately, I think the judgement of Sonic Excess in Its Purest Form comes down to taste as much as anything. Naturally, a propensity for the slow stuff helps (thrashers need not apply), while a necessary tolerance for ugliness in the vocals and rhythm department might discourage old school doom fans from listening. A few minor criticisms should be levelled at the similarity of many of the tracks here, since they are all cut from the same cloth, showing just enough variation to keep things challenging, while I feel like a couple of leads could have rounded off the emotional aspect of the album while also adding to the musical flavour. There is also the counter argument that 45 minutes is not overlong for this style and the building nature of the album works in its favour, so too many changes in style could dilute the impact. In brief, it's a damn good album, hits hard as a ton of bricks, and should be listened to in times of sorrow and struggle.