By Laina Dawes
Perhaps because their last release, Subject to Change Without Notice was released six years ago, coupled with the music industry’s short-term memory loss – not really anyone’s fault, as a plethora of albums are released every week – the understated brilliance of the Cleveland, Ohio quartet has largely gone unnoticed. On the other hand, Keelhaul is not known for making user-friendly music, and perhaps the aptly titled Keelhaul’s Triumphant Return to Obscurity (out August 18th on Hydra Head Records) signifies that.
I’m not going to front – besides listening to a couple of tracks from previous albums, this was the first album of theirs I listened to front to back. But recently I had the great fortune of seeing them play in Brooklyn (a.k.a Hipster Hell) and their live performance – this is going to sound like an odd description of a band that consists of four thirty-something, very average dudes – was electrifying and refreshingly different.
Largely instrumental, the main ingredient is kick-ass drummer Will Scharf, as it seems that the band largely plays around his precise and experimental drumming patterns. There are very few unnecessary flourishes from guitarists Dana Embrose and Chris Smith, who heavily rely on meaty riffage, but rarely, with the exception of “High Seas Viking Eulogy” can the listener decipher one guitarist from the other. Same with vocalist / bassist Aaron Dallison, whose fuzzy bass tones, ala Mastodon’s Troy Sanders work on Remission, holds the groove down but still seems to be downplayed – no ego, no attempt to outshine anyone else, but to see him perform live really displayed a union between Embrose and Smith, that I fear doesn’t quite reflect in this album.
Perhaps that is the problem with Keelhaul’s Triumphant Return to Obscurity. You need to see the dynamic between the musicians in a live performance in order to fully encapsulate how this works, how brilliant they are. Rapid time changes, the hints of swing, groove and progressive rock and surprisingly introspective interludes are a treat, as the ‘math metal’ moniker they were previously known for has been downplayed, trading it in for yes, intricate but slightly slower and thought-out instrumentals. But with the plethora of new metal albums being pumped out, will people have the patience?
While they seem to have generally disregarded traditional song structures, standout tracks like “ Everything’s a Napkin” herald back to an old-school punk feel and “Pass The Lampshade” might be the most ‘metallish’ track on the album. When there are a bit of vocals from Dallison (see “High Seas”) they work as an afterthought, adding an extra ingredient to the mix instead of anchoring the song. Because of their uniqueness, perhaps Keelhaul’s Triumphant Return to Obscurity might serve as an unfortunate premonition to how the masses might respond, but it certainly doesn’t deserve it.