(In this post Andy Synn reviews the new album by the Vancouver-based metal band Bushwhacker, which was released on July 19th.)
To a certain extent this business – the business of being a music writer/critic/blogger – is built on relationships. Relationships with bands, PR people, labels… and so on… which, if cultivated correctly, help to create a sustainable and mutually-beneficial ecosystem for everyone involved.
There are, of course, potential dark sides to these relationships.
Certain labels have been known to lean on smaller sites/zines by using the threat of removing their access to bump up the review scores or the amount of coverage given to their artists. Certain PR companies have been known to effectively “blacklist” certain writers or publications if they aren’t nice enough to the bands they’re representing. And certain critics have had their reputations questioned when it’s come to light that they’re perhaps a little more friendly with certain musicians than they originally let on.
It’s this last one which vexes me the most these days, and there are a few bands who I simply won’t review any more purely because, even if I trust myself to be as objective and impartial as possible, I don’t want there to be even a hint of impropriety or preferential treatment attached to my work.
But when Bushwhacker contacted us recently asking if we’d be willing to give their new record a listen, I simply couldn’t refuse. Not just because of the way in which they went about it – not directly asking for, or demanding, a review, but simply letting us know the music was out there if we were interested – but because it really is a damn fine album!
It’s also slightly ridiculous, in all the best ways, as the band have chosen to go full concept album on A Fistful of Poison, presenting the listener with an allegorical tale of addiction, betrayal, and greed, set in a universe of their own creation, where the Old West meets ancient Egyptian mythology.
It’s a hell of a lot to take in, I’ll grant you, and some of the voice acting in the interludes is a little goofy (particularly John Sayer as “Old Man” Herschel… sorry John), but it’s also impossible not to love and appreciate the band’s unabashed dedication to their concept and their craft… especially when the music is as good as it is!
On the one hand, tracks like “…And They Rode West”, “Bridges Burn”, and “The Weighing of the Heart” showcase a significantly proggier and more introspective side of Bushwhacker than we saw on their previous record, with a greater emphasis on mood and melody (particularly when it comes to the band’s use of complex-yet-compelling lead parts) which recalls the best bits of Mastodon and/or Baroness (with perhaps a dash of Khemmis) without sounding derivative of, or indebted to, either.
There’s even an increased focus on atmosphere and ambience which, at times, puts me in mind of Dvne’s underappreciated modern-classic Asheran (which, for those of you keeping score at home, is high praise indeed).
Yet that doesn’t mean the Canadian quartet have allowed their metallic muscles to atrophy, as although the riffing may be notably less thrashy and frenetic this time around, the guitars are still pregnant with power and presence, and there are more than enough moments (such as during “The River Black” or the mammoth “Brother In Blood”) which remind you of just how intense and imposing Bushwhacker can be when the occasion calls for it.
And while the vocals may be significantly “cleaner” than before – with far more use of two-, and even three-, part harmonies, and a concurrent reduction in anything on the more traditional Black/Death spectrum – the primary voice of the record is still gritty and gripping enough satisfy all but the most hardened extremophiles, frequently employing a coarse, gravel-throated drawl that sounds a little bit like Tom Waits fronting Cormorant.
Which, again, is no bad thing.
Of course, no album is truly perfect, and A Fistful of Poison is no exception in this regard, something which can mostly be attributed to the way in which the conceptual interludes designed to help tell the album’s story occasionally help to kill its momentum instead, with “The Saloon” and “Offhand Remarks” being the primary offenders in this regard (the latter of which could easily have been folded into climactic instrumental “To The Stars” by the way).
But, even taking these minor issues into account, it’s difficult not to see A Fistful of Poison as an absolute triumph, one which practically demands to be listened to as a single, (mostly) cohesive piece of art, and whose creators deserve all the praise I can muster for not allowing their vision, or their ambition, to be limited or compromised along the way.