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Meanders like a lost puppy in a swamp - 58%

iamntbatman, November 19th, 2009

Proudly on display here are Warhorse's humble beginnings as an atmospheric, trippy stoner metal band, with the whole "humble beginnings" bit being a key part of the equation. The band had yet to master the essential crafts of riff and songwriting, preferring instead to play extended jams over basic bluesy stoner riffs. The release is billed as an EP but the majority of its 45+ minute runtime is occupied by its two bonus tracks: the band's earlier "Winter" demo material. With a bit more polish, this would make the ideal soundtrack to some better living through chemistry but as it stands it's more of a curiosity than an essential experience.

Album opener "Hymn I - On Your Knees" is, for the majority of its duration, a basic blues scale workout on the incredibly low-pitched (and somewhat overbearing) bass guitar, along with some minimal drumming. The guitar is content to manipulate feedback and work through an endless stream of effects, soaring out over the mix in stoned ambiance until the song's nearly over, when it finally starts playing the heavy stoner riff we've been waiting for for six minutes. The riff itself isn't half bad once it does show up but in retrospect, the whole six minutes of noodling bit just seems like a way to artificially extend a half-baked riff idea.

Second track "Hymn II - Thy Cup Runneth Over" is thankfully much more successful as an actual stoner doom track. What we have here is actually an early version of "Lysergic Communion" from As Heaven Turns To Ash. The song's main riff is fully intact even in this early incarnation but is too muddy to be really enjoyable. The drumming is a bit more interesting on this track than the largely ambient first track which fits its more focused style much better. Unlike "Hymn I", this song actually includes vocals but they aren't really much to write home about. They could be understood as singing in the most basic sense that they have melody to them, but they have a rasp to them and a bit of reverb, as well. In general, they sound kind of like an amateur version of Al Cisneros' chanting vocals on Sleep's Jerusalem album. The track meanders quite a bit but has more focused lead guitar playing than "Hymn I" so it has a bit more structure.

First bonus track "Death's Bride" is an early version of "Doom's Bride" from the full length. As with "Hymn II" the main riff is already well-formed which of course lends a good deal of quality to the track. Unfortunately, the mix is so bass-heavy the guitar can hardly be heard at all (yet strangely the drums are quite clear). Other than the horrid production, the track is also hampered by a really poor, borderline comical vocal performance that sounds like an amateur singer trying much to hard to be emotive and sing beyond his range. Much like the rest of the early Warhorse material, this serves as a curiosity more than anything else. The re-recorded version on As Heaven Turns To Ash is superior in every aspect.

The second bonus track, an even earlier version of the themes from "Hymn II"/"Lysergic Communion" is an 18-minute behemoth but, much like "Hymn I," is largely filled with low-key blues bass and drums while the guitar noodles away into stoned euphoria with minimalistic, ambient noise. Once the riffs take shape and the vocals come in things don't improve much as the guitar, like on "Death's Bride", is horribly buried and the vocal performance is lacking, to say the least.

It's hard for me to recommend this release to all but the most die-hard of fans. The production could be described as "horrid" but isn't quite as offensive as it is on The Priestess despite being even lower-fi. The release also contains two different versions of one of the band's strongest tracks, but neither of these is anywhere near as developed or simply as good as the version on As Heaven Turns To Ash. Improved production would make this much more listenable but even if that were the case, the songs here are simply too amorphous to serve as much more than background music. This is slightly better than The Priestess if you're in an absolute need of an early Warhorse fix, but everyone else should be directed immediately to the band's only full-length album.