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“…who are your heroes? Where are the morals?”
Gather ‘round brothers and sisters of the slow, stow the Technical Ecstasy album and drag your feet through another cement-legged band’s not-so-checkered story.
I’ll try to keep the history short. Prior to the smoke rings of ‘stoner’ assumption and guttural, violin-warped woe of the early/mid ‘90s, there existed this malnourished and maltreated little Pennsylvania act called Dream Death, a foursome that journeyed into a mystery that would ultimately harden into what some would say is now the cracked and pitted curbing of the notorious death/doom driveway (even if this writer thinks they’re way more doom than death, and how come Celtic Frost’s “Dethroned Emperor", “Procreation (of the Wicked)”, “Necromantical Screams”, and “Dawn of Meggido” are unnoticeably ground into the asphalt?) Essentially, Trouble, Saint Vitus, and Pentagram pushed down pillars that would be piled higher and longer on DD’s sole release. Some demos roll by in ’88 and ’90, and on April 9, 1989 comes the name flip to the less puerile Penance. Bands like Winter, Autopsy, and Paradise Lost start rumbling through like bulldozers. Then comes The Road Less Traveled in ’92, and boy did people pass this one by like the street sign was in braille. That’s alright, ‘cos two years later the rhombus evolves into a slew of ninety degree angles and Parallel Corners is released by the stronger (than Rise Above Records, anyway) Century Media. Well, I guess that’s kinda short.
It’s apparent the time between TRLT and PC had been spent lathering up the patented leaden pace to a smoother, more limber combustibility. Limber doom? Well, compared to TRLT’s somber odysseys like “Soul Rot” and “The Unseen”, this more compact doomicus machinus kicks up dirt quite a bit more. Sure, a few songs still circle ambitious lengths, but now the ride has a few more pistons firing with some black smoke blowing out the back and is best heard in “Words Not Deeds” and the later half of “Reflections”. The guitar tone has deepened without roaring into Crowbar or future Fu Manchu territories while the production promisingly wades through a river of magma. Two layovers from their ’90 Living Truth demo is the more true-blue doomster “Born to Suffer” and flashier “Crosses” (known there as “Crosses We Bear”). “Born to Suffer” has probably the most building-flattening entrance on the lp (yeah, all ten seconds of it), which overturns the cement mixer and the dirge of doom metal we’ve all come to know and be suffocated by oozes into every orifice.
To some surprise (and not so much to others), while swimming through this magma you’ll find some of the first small islands of stoner swagger. You’ll float by much of it in the solos, especially in the cawing, bong-winded final minutes of “Visions” and the bass-backed, bluesaholic one in “Words to Live By”, two smolder-streaked retreats back to something I call atomic blues (a label I find much more engaging, if not exciting, than ‘sit on the couch and veg’ stoner). “Destroyed by One” is a melancholy and painless departure, psychy like “Planet Caravan” meets Frost’s “Danse Macabre” with its airy acoustics, light celestial keyboards, and eerie twinkle bells, but the friggin’ thing’s eight minutes long. Jeez.
The vocals of Lee Smith and mikeman-up-to-this-point Brian Lawrence (Goodbread) aren’t so dissimilar. In fact, I thought they were one in the same ‘til I checked the cd sleeve. Comparably, a willingness for dread roils in both singers’ lungs, bedraggled whether drawling in tragedy or ringing in more excited despair, and since the days of Dream Death I’ve thought this facet of the four-piece was its high stake. The thing is, ironically, just when I thought no one could be as forlornly scrubby as (or like) Lawrence-Goodbread, here comes Smith blowin’ smoke in my face.
So, Journey into Mystery and The Road Less Traveled may have unwittingly and uncannily defined themselves through their titles, but Parallel Corners offers what may be a few angles that weren’t exactly predictable to a fact. Yeah, the ‘stoner’ sound was already kinda burning the end of a blunt with the bleary vision of Sleep, Kyuss, and (in spots) Cathedral, but the toke wasn’t quite a full one. But honestly, I see Penance standing outside the circle taking in residual smoke more than sitting at it passing things around. And what was predictable, and likeably so, is that they’d sing the praises of doom.
“…glory bound or the fool crown, it's all just the same…”
Old school doom represents unfamiliar territory for me. Up until last year black metal was my domain and I stayed within my quarters, pacing slowly around the room in no hurry to seek alternative accommodation. Rarely did I dare to even dream about venturing out of my safe haven. Then I was struck by this unerring feeling, one that I couldn’t shake off. This feeling was one that spoke to my in vivid visions and told me that the outside world must have something to offer me that I could enjoy, that I could perhaps treasure as highly as I did my black metal gems, which I held closely to my chest at all times. So, I began to sluggishly venture out of my secluded hole, peering in and out of genres that were viewed as dangerous territories to begin with. Slowly, but surely I began to realise that although my safe haven would always be my natural home, and that it would always offer my unparalleled joys, I could still find classics outside of it. I had a very sheltered beginning to metal life, some would even argue that it was elitist. I had grown attached to genres like black metal and felt as if I was intruding upon other genres, as well as their fans, whenever I listened to them, doom included. As I started to get older, maturity set in and wisdom was acquired through hardships, metal became less about genre distinctions and definitions and more about what the music had to offer me on a personal level.
As this maturity began to influence my metal listening habits, I began to search the open plains of metal for whatever I could catch in the hunt for the best material. Although I’ve come across many generic bands, I’ve enjoyed the journey. I try to maintain that life is one big experience and that all you have to do is merely enjoy it. I don’t need a successful career. I don’t need loads of money. I need fulfilment in my hobbies, which includes finding and listening to new bands (as well as sticking with already discovered gems). My search has taken me to many different parts of the world, all inside my imagination, and has crash landed me here, on familiar grounds - in America. Penance, who’re yet to receive any attention on the Archives, are a band who seems to be much loved, despite the lack of evidence in terms of reviews. This American band has been around since the late 1980’s, so I’m imagining that their style has influenced many of the bands I currently listen to. Its always good to know where your habits began and how your current favourites came to be. Influential bands like Penance will always remain so due to the iconic nature of their music, which is shown here on the important ‘Parallel Corners’. I often find it difficult to knock influential bands because it was their sound in the past that inspired many of the musicians I like in the present. However, ‘Parallel Corners’ genuinely offers little room for criticism. I wouldn’t say its anywhere near perfection, but it sounds like an honest portrayal of the bands emotions at the time and as such, is rather charming.
Obviously the world had already cottoned on to Penance’s potential as this record was picked up by Century Media, a major force in the metal industry. There is a prowess that is shown particularly well through the often delightful instrumentation without ever really excelling on from it. Upon first hearing this band, I could have sworn there was a distinctive stoner influence in their music. The slow, heavy guitars reminds me of bands like Electric Wizard, who have perhaps become even more iconic that this similarly natured band. I was surprised to read that there was only one guitarist on this record. Generally speaking, a lot of bands like to include a second in order to enhance that thick sound the guitars portray through the distortion. The musicianship present on ‘Parallel Corners’ is generally good and very expressive. Soundscapes have a habit of switching from despairing to tender, without much notice, which is a positive reflection of the capabilities of the bands members. The bass, in particular, likes to have its moment in the sun to shine. It has no trouble dealing with the spotlight and tends to use the opportunity of the limelight on it much better than the guitars do, though the guitars are responsible for more of the sizzling soundscapes that depict spectacular journey’s through space and heavy drug trips. I find it odd that the bass actually tends to produce much of the mesmerising work, laying down several thick grooves that reminds me of the NWOBHM scene, or bands like Trouble.
The stoner influence, to me, is most visible in the crushingly heavy guitars (though there is a fine line between doom and stoner sounds in this area of instrumentation), the catchy and well constructed bass and lastly, the clean vocals which typically express themes of despair, which you’d expect in a genre called ‘doom’. There are even more creative inputs that I didn’t see coming - like the lovely wave of electric-acoustic works on ‘Reflections’, which is unsurprisingly very reflective. The band use significant mood changes to their advantage, depicting the pain on the previous song in weighty distortion and then the nostalgic visions (shown brilliantly in the lyrics; “sooner of later, life takes its toll” and “starting over isn’t easy, it gets tougher every time” - the emotive words and melodic tones in the vocalists powerful voice resonate within us and stand on our shoulders like a heavy burden of emotion) on this track with light instrumentation, typified in the ever present use of the cymbals and hi hat. Although there can be some mediocre moments (like ‘Born To Suffer’ which fails to live up to the immense qualities of the opening song), the record generally gives an impressive view of the band, especially in terms of the bass and stylistic coolness of most of the songs. The most notable songs though, are the one’s that tend to change the approach that Penance usually stick with. Songs like the aforementioned ‘Reflections’ and ‘Destroyed By One’ which takes a light view on the lyrical themes through symphonic built soundscapes and semi-acoustic sections which develop intense emotive sections.