Saturday, May 5, 2018

Jess and the Ancient Ones - The Horse and Other Weird Tales

Flower... "power"?

In the hallowed halls of metal history, this style of retro-occult-psychedelic-(sometimes)-doom-rock flamed out especially quickly, earning itself a spot next to rethrash and salad shooter tech death in terms of the almost hilariously imbalanced hype-to-longevity ratio (mark my words, synthwave has a year left at most, it will be looked at like Skrillex-style brostep by 2020).  Like most fads, it bloated dangerously quickly, and got too big too quickly, with a few genuine greats struggling to breathe beneath the infinitely expanding quagmire of mediocre nobodies ripping off established classics.  This psychedoomic style is no exception.  Year of the Goat was phenomenal with Lucem Ferre and Angel's Necropolis but I haven't kept up with them since, I can never remember which one I liked between The Devil's Blood and Blood Ceremony, probably whichever one was less metallic, and uhh... Jex Thoth was okay maybe?  It's only been like five years and I've already forgotten pretty much everything about the scene, that's how amazingly quickly it dissipated into total irrelevance.

But the one who always stood out to me was, without a shadow of a doubt, Jess and the Ancient Ones.  You could easily accuse me of just being a dumbass headbanger and latching onto the band with the most ridiculously badass metal background, but I pinky swear that I was already a big fan cranking the debut and Astral Sabbat five times a day by the time I found out that the band included Antti Fucking Boman (aka the interplanetary eldritch calamity that gurgled Demilich to the level of underground legends) and half of the band was also in motherfucking Deathchain (who you may remember as the band that wrote fucking "Napalm Satan").  These guys could be peddling soundcloud trap and I'd be willing to pretend I loved it based on my unending adulation of the members' pedigrees alone. The influence of their decidedly death metal background is more or less entirely absent in JATAO, but it doesn't matter, they've earned my respect so I'd've been all over this band before even hearing a single note if I had discovered this information earlier than I had.

But none of that matters, because almost as soon as I was armed with this knowledge, the band... well, kinda got shit.  Second Psychedlic Coming just went in one ear and out the other so cleanly that even after a few years and probably a dozen spins I've forgotten every single note.  When their third album here, The Horse and Other Weird Tales dropped, I didn't even notice or care.  I only decided to give this a whirl because I got the itch to hear the self titled again the other day and figured this at the very least deserved a listen.  And well, I may not exactly regret listening to it, I certainly don't feel like my life has been enriched in any way by catching up to the band.

Musically, this is as light as they've ever been.  And there's nothing wrong with that really, they were never particularly heavy in the first place, never reaching towards anything more threatening than Blue Oyster Cult for inspiration, but they undeniably had something of an edge that has since been excised entirely.  The occult angle seems to have been replaced entirely with just general flower power psychedelia, taking more inspiration from oriental rugs and incense than pagan rituals in a black forest.  Again, there's nothing really wrong with that outside of personal preference.  I really do miss tracks like "Prayer for Death and Fire" and "Come Crimson Death" but they never really needed to look towards the devil to be great.  If anything, it just shows where their music was going to go as well, because that rough edge that kept the songs a little more dangerous than their contemporaries has been sanded completely clean with the expulsion of Lucifer from their writing room.  Now it's just Jefferson Airplane and The Doors and uhhh... I dunno, The 13th Floor Elevators?  This isn't my style, sue me for not knowing.  The point is, this is pure 60s psyche rock now, drenched in hallucinogens and thus producing music that is far more swirly than straight ahead.

The problem with this is that their average song length has since been cut down by like 60%.  So now that all the real riffs are gone and the band seems more prone to just jamming on Manzarek lines and LSD, but the songs themselves have settled in the 2-3 minute range.  Nothing has time to develop anymore, which is baffling because they were really good at lengthy songs before.  "Sulfur Giants", "More Than Living", and "Come Crimson Death" all ran on an average of around 13 minutes or so, and all of them felt larger than life.  They were sprawling, twisty experiences that built upon themselves and eventually exploded into colorful ejaculations of triumph.  Pardon how absolutely fucked up this sentence is going to be, but one of Jess's main appeals was just how gloriously she would climax.  Even their shorter songs built towards something, and when they reached their apex it would be absolutely astounding.  They've already proven that they're at their best when allowing their songs a lot of time to breathe and develop and form lives of their own, so how the hell did the band decide that it would be a good idea to start writing in a more jammy style while suddenly adhering strictly to a more traditional rock format structure-wise?  In the old days, the songs that had a more "normal" structure and approach were still hovering around the six minute mark, and tracks like "Astral Sabbat", "Twilight Witchcraft", and especially "Prayer for Death and Fire" were 1000x more engaging and exciting than go-nowhere nonsense with an eighth of the content in half the time like "Return to Hallucinate", "Your Exploding Heads" or "Minotaure".  The only songs where this really works are "Shining" and "Here Comes the Rainbow Mouth", and that has more to do with the songwriting in general just being tighter and catchier on those songs.

I've gone this far without really addressing Jess herself, and that's because if I had brought her up first I'd have basically nothing else to talk about.  She is this album, and that's the long and short of it.  The songs being less guitar driven seem to be done with the intent of giving her even more of the stage, because she is mixed obnoxiously high and given center spotlight at every turn.  The instrumental segments don't really shine when they finally do get the spotlight because now it feels like the band is almost uncomfortable without her howling over them.  Don't get me wrong, her voice is still excellent, and it's a bit smokier and sultrier this time around, which admittedly does mesh with the more laid back instrumentation than her exuberant wailing of the past.  This is the sound of a woman matured, but that does also contribute to the more exciting nature of their earlier work being so noticeably absent.  That youth was enrapturing, and this more weathered performance works fine for what it is (and again, the actual sound of her voice is still stellar), but it ultimately winds up being yet another contributing factor to why the band has fallen off so hard in recent years. 

I don't claim to actually know the inner workings of the band behind the scenes.  I don't know who the primary songwriter is, it stands to reason it could be Jess since, ya know, the band is named after her, or possibly Abraham since the keys drive the music so much (though I must admit that despite my overall distaste for the album, I can't get enough of how fucking groovy these basslines are), but whoever it is I think they need to chill out and refocus themselves.  They have strengths that they're perplexingly neglecting to utilize.  JATAO is great at longer songs that grow throughout their runtimes, they're not quite so good at trying to be trippy and succinct at the same time.  While this has grown on me somewhat, it looks like I'm gonna have to just stick to the self titled and Astral Sabbat whenever I want my fix of this style, because what they're doing right now just isn't working on a fundamental level.

I don't really have a good way to end this review, so I'll just point out that Jess's accent is still hilarious and her pronunciation of "eyes" will always sounds like "ass".


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