For a doom album, a release near Halloween has got to be as good as it gets. If there’s ever a time people would want sluggish, malevolent songs about witches, demons, cults, and, (of course) weed, that’s probably the best bet. The situation gets even better when the band releasing said album is Electric Wizard, arguably the biggest name in the genre, and they promise their loyal fans “a mindmelting hallucinogenic nightmare of drug paranoia and misanthropic deathwishes.” Well, if that’s their way of saying, “the biggest musical disappointment since whatever the last thing Weezer did,” then I agree wholeheartedly.
If a complaint could be levied against most of Wizard’s catalogue it would be that there’s not much variety; the band knew what it does well and it stuck to it. It seems that Jus Oborn (who is, perhaps tellingly, the only remaining original member of the band) decided that something had to change. Well, let’s just say that stagnancy is just about the only problem this album doesn’t have. In an attempt to shake things up, Oborn indiscriminately throws in heaping helpings of bluesy, stoner rock riffs and simplistic power-chord progressions where they have no business being. For someone who once criticized other bands for sounding just like Kyuss, he doesn’t seem too ashamed to have released an album where half of the songs are basically Master of Reality with some extra fuzz thrown over them.
Wizard’s songs have always been rather simplistic, based almost entirely on one or two riffs, but Black Masses really takes it to another level. At least on prior albums, the riffs were strong enough to carry 8 or 9 minutes of jamming. Black Masses’ grooving melodies are repeated ad nauseum, often playing throughout the entire duration of each song, growing more and more tedious with every repetition until they’re mercifully drowned out by the same wash of feedback that ends just about every song. The title of “Turn Off Your Mind,” is particularly fitting, since after four minutes of the same miserable little blues riff repeating over and over, you’ll have flipped the switch on either your brain or your record player.
To be fair, there are still a few songs that sound like old fashioned doom. “The Nightchild” and “Scorpio Curse” are just heavy enough to be passable. “Black Mass” is a little fast paced, but it wouldn’t be too out of place on an earlier record. “Satyr IX” is the album’s standout track; it features some interesting vocal work by Oborn and features the strongest riffs on the album. The transitions in it are a bit abrupt, but on the whole, it’s a welcome change from the painfully generic stoner songs like “Patterns of Evil.”
Not content to fail in incorporating just one new genre into the album, Wizard also tries its hand at drone in the album’s closing track, “Crypt of Drugula.” It’s an interesting move certainly, and it’s not really that bad, but there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the song itself. The guitars don’t have enough oomph to be impressive, the drums fade into near non-existence as soon as the song starts picking up, and the overall composition just isn’t terribly compelling. It might seem sort of neat if someone had never heard anything like it before, but I suspect that the majority of Electric Wizard’s fans know at least a few big name drone bands and “Crypt of Drugula” sounds like something a high school Sunn O))) cover band would throw together.
Straddling genres isn’t a bad idea and it could have been exactly what Wizard needed to grow, but the songs featuring the new styles feel half-baked and thrown together. Bongripper’s most recent album, Satan Worshipping Doom, incorporated grindcore, drone, and even some sludge into its usual doom sensibilities and was remarkably good. Black Masses, however, doesn’t so much incorporate drone and stoner rock into its existing sound, but rather throws amateurish attempts at each onto the coattails of a doom album.
Fitting the misguided songwriting direction, some very strange moves were taken with the album’s production. The gain on the guitars is rolled way back, effectively neutering their usual roar. The drums, which should be thunderous and prominent, are buried in the mix, often getting completely lost in the hiss of the feedback that comprises most of the album’s solos. The bass is very nearly inaudible in most of the tracks, and there’s a particularly irritating oscillating background frequency present throughout most of “Satyr IX.” Electric Wizard has always really used its brutish, overpowering tone to make up for its less than complex songwriting and lethargic pace. Without the raw force of the sound to awe and entrance the listener, the songs’ flaws become much more apparent.
Taken out of the context of Electric Wizard’s previous work, Black Masses is entirely listenable, but, compared to just about any of their other albums, it’s a complete and utter disappointment. In a year when there have already been great genre-bending doom releases like Satan Worshipping Doom, Black Masses’ sloppy blend of stoner, doom, and drone really seems thrown together and just not worth your while.