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Sludge is hard to do wrong: tune the guitars down, add some feedback (okay, lots of feedback), tell the vocalist to scream like he's shooting battery acid-spiked heroin, throw in a little '70s-style southern rock groove, and voila, instant sludge godliness. But as easy as that sounds, sludge is also hard to do right: indistinguishable songs, busy drum work, over-reliance on slowness for it's own sake, lack of tempo changes and overly monotonous screaming, and voila, instant sludge shittiness. The difficulty in achieving the former without also achieving the latter is reflected in the relatively few (out of a large number) good (to great) sludge bands that have ever existed. The list begins and ends with Eyehategod, Cavity, Buzzov*en, Iron Monkey, Greenmachine and Bongzilla; the last few years though have seen an explosion of sludge acts, and not just from domestic shores for what had been primarily a US phenomenon (Iron Monkey and Greenmachine not withstanding).
The Spanish entrant in the contest to crown new sludge royalty is the three-piece Moho. He Visto La Cruz Al Revés is their second album and certainly has the right sound. So where does it fall in the sludge pantheon? A closer look reveals that while they do an admirable job with the sludge sound and atmosphere they do lack certain things to that might make them sludge kings (or princes really, as long as Eyehategod is still around).
Firstly, this sounds great. The guitars are thick, heavy and natural (no digital sheen here) and the requisite feedback is present, granted not in Cavity-style squalls or Iron Monkey-style torrents. The drums sound great, a full bass drum and loud cymbals with a nice muted snare (nothing ruins sludge faster than an overly loud snare drum, it just sounds out of place), and the bass guitar is audible and loud enough to give this a fat low-end sound, close to overpowering but it fits this genre well. The vocals compliment the guitars, being a little back in the mix. The sound is as natural as one is likely to hear in the age of ProTools.
Secondly, Moho understands the idea of swing and groove. "Fistula" swings like the best southern rock, albeit really only for short stretches; "Oche Funebre" has a great lock-step groove that shows up in the last few minutes of the song, and "El Duelo" and "Lava" both begin with a bouncy, near rock and roll pace that wouldn't be out of place on a High On Fire record. Along with these grooves, the songs also have some faster moments, sometimes reaching gallop-speed (that's the Eyehategod-style gallop from certain songs on Dopesick, not the Metallica thrash metal gallop); neither are they afraid to slow a song down to an absolute crawl, like long sections of "Semana Santa," and the aforementioned "Lava". These boys can get heads banging with the best sludge bands out there.
Thirdly, they have the right atmosphere and presentation. The artwork is green, green and more green, just in slightly different shades. There is no ornate lettering and neither is there is a fancy cover drawing, instead just a strange black and white photograph of trees underwater and three crosses on a distant hill or monument; the back cover contains two more photographs: in the first, what appears to be an old lady kneeling by a cross and in second, the claw of some unnamed and unknown animal. It's all obscure, quasi-religious and slightly foreboding, like the music itself.
So given these qualities, what exactly are the shortcomings of He Visto La Cruz Al Revés? First, as good as the recording sounds, it could stand to be a little muddier or dirtier. This is just a bit too clean and each instrument is a smidge too clear. Second, each song contains numerous elements, both fast and slow, swinging and trudging, but for the most part they don't seem coherent, and they never coalesce into one great memorable song. The parts seem strung together at random, like they wrote six songs, cut them up and then jumbled them back together; it makes it difficult to tell the songs apart. Third, and this is a personal preference, Moho, at least on this album, seem to draw a few times from the prog metal of Mastodon, at least in the drum work and a few of the up tempo moments; I like my sludge with no overt technicality or progressive edge, just pure unadulterated heavy-as-Black Sabbath filth, tempered with angry-as-Black Flag rage.
This is better than many of the new sluge albums that have come out in the last few years. It hews much closer to the originators of the style then most of the modern bands. He Visto La Cruz Al Revés has all the elements to be a great sludge album, but coupled with the many untoward elements, ends up being just good instead. Moho has loads of talent, and this is a bit of a let down after their fantastic debut.