Life Drawing

Written by: AP on 23/04/2014 14:12:36

Stoneburner, a doom/sludge metal quartet from Portland, OR; take their name after a powerful subterranean weapon in Frank Herbert's novel Dune, the purpose of which is to cause structural destruction and to blind all those in the blast vicinity. Such a moniker of course sets a prerequisite: the music must be equally powerful; to have a certain lumbering characteristic to it. I've not had the pleasure of hearing the group's début mini-album "Sickness Will Pass" released in 2012, but based on this second outing "Life Drawing", it is safe to say Stoneburner do live up to the severity of their name.

Though not a concept album per se, there is a central theme to "Life Drawing", one reflected both in the painting by J. J. Shirey that constitutes the artwork, and in the titles and lyrics of the songs themselves, which all relate to various stages in man's lifelong struggle to grow and heal, and to be a decent person whilst tugged the other way by physical and emotional addictions. The knowledge that there is more to the record than mere songs exploring their own individual topics is of course a natural propellant for curiosity, just as it ensures a sustained intrigue for unearthing its secrets and developing one's own interpretations of what Stoneburner hope to convey. The title alone is ambiguous: does it mean a drawing of life, or the metaphorical act of drawing a life?

"Life Drawing" is heavy stuff, musically as well as in its discourse, but not without its melodic reprisals, there to accentuate the juxtapositions to which its subject matter gives rise. "Some Can" opens the proceedings on an abrasive, capitulating note before the thick and suffocating "Caged Bird" rains down the claustrophobic reality of feeling captive. Drummer Jesse McKinnon's growls sound as anguished as the pace of his drumming, but the downtrodden misery lasts only until "Drift", a bright clean intermezzo full of hope and ambition; a feeling which guitarists Jason Depew & Elijah Boland cede into the first half of the following "Apology to a Friend in Need". Its doom laden melodic grandeur is welcome reprieve from the hulking density of the opening duo, but just as its title suggests a contradiction (why apologise, and not offer help to a friend in need?), so does its atmosphere suddenly take a turn for the darker through a haunting bridge, slowing to a drag as McKinnon's vocals grow more gruelling with each passing second.

It is one of the best, and perhaps most telling songs "Life Drawing" has to offer, exploring the tug of war between self-service and decency not just through its lyricism, but also its structure and atmosphere. "Pale New Eyes" - an allusion to the misty, not yet fully developed eyes of an infant creature I believe - continues this expert fusion of sound and theme in a manner almost funereal at first, with scarce, echoing clean notes and McKinnon's baritone musings giving rise to a sense of that drowsy awakening every infant must experience when entering this life. It swells in volume as the minutes roll past, until at the 04:30 mark Depew & Boland distort their tones and kick the bastard into a bold march interrupted here and there by explosions of violent dissonance, and once the song enters its crescendo at last with a wailing harmonised solo full of will and intent, the image of birth and growth is drawn complete.

Indeed, Stoneburner are at their best in these monolithic moments when they combine brute force and melodic prosperity, and neither the eerie psychedelic doom of "Done" nor the crushing grime of "You are the Worst" can quite live up in their wake. The near 18-minute "Phoenix" (the title of which betrays its meaning, surely) does produce a worthy conclusion fans of more traditional doom are sure to be endeared by; slow, contemplative and laced with dozy melodies, the track's persistent rise from the ashes until the 11-minute mark is well in keeping with the legend of the phoenix - just as its elegiac second half has the bird in divine ascent.

Thematically then, Stoneburner seem to have hit their stride on this second outing. But the at times shattering sludge pummel evident in the first half of the record in particular weakens its musical standing somewhat - at least in my book. If you find bands like Buzzo*ven, Grief & Sourvein to your taste, however, then it is likely that you'll discover in Stoneburner a new favourite.


Download: An Apology to a Friend in Need, Pale New Eyes, The Phoenix
For the fans of: Buzzo*ven, Grief, Sourvein
Listen: Facebook

Release date 14.04.2014
Neurot Recordings

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