[Review: Velvet Elvis, ‘No Rules in the Wasteland’]

Here we have some good ol’ fashioned heavy riff-based rock. Rochester-based experimental rock group Velvet Elvis takes its cues from a number of different eras of metal music: from the earliest bad-trip blues of groups like Black Sabbath and Sir Lord Baltimore, to the fantastical imagery of power metal groups from the early ’80s like Dio and sludge metal like Saint Vitus, through the boom of ‘stoner’ metal in the early ’90s with bands like Kyuss and Monster Magnet, to the current revival of ‘doom’ rock in the form of bands like the Sword and Electric Wizard.

So, I don’t want to encourage any use of illicit substances, but when listening to this, it would certainly make sense to smoke ’em if you got ’em.

The use of the term ‘stoner’ metal is certainly not a misnomer when applied to this cassette from the cae-sur-a imprint (also from Rochester). This particular group of songs, like much of the genre, sounds like a 45 being played at 33 rpms. There isn’t really any other explanation for why it is so incredibly slow. But getting high does have an effect on the perception of time and makes the lethargy of the songs here sound completely natural. Imagine the typical image of crazy headbanging kids at a metal show with their hair whipping all over the place. Now slow the footage down and you have this kind of music.  And truly, the strength of music like this comes from the tempo; like a herd of elephants, it crushes everything in its path not because of any malicious intent but because the sheer magnitude and power behind it is incapable of gentility.

And the pace of the music tends to dictate that songs will stretch out much further than the normal three-to-four minute range. The first song here, “No Rules in the Wasteland,” is actually fifteen minutes long, managing to encompasses everything great about this genre; incredibly drawn-out song structures centered around simple power-chord grooves, shifting dynamics, and emphasis of the rhythm section over any complicated harmonization. This is a fantastic song, and for all the metal super-fans there are some nice little touches like the slow-phased guitar in the beginning, an acknowledgement of this genre’s past.

While this song is fifteen minutes long, it never gets boring. In fact, it only gets more interesting when, halfway through, it breaks down and reformulates into an even slower groove for much of the remaining time. There are only a very few examples that would serve as a better introduction to this genre, and since the other one that comes to mind (Sleep’s “Dopesmoker”) is quite ridiculously long, this song has a bit of an edge.

The next two songs are much shorter but no less interesting. “Pretty Girls In Lace” uses the same kind of curious, swing-like rhythm that has popped up in metal ever since Sabbath’s “Fairies Wear Boots.” This kind of jazz rhythm has always somehow fit in well with the half-time feel of this slower music. In particular, the beginning of the song barrels forward, finally settling into a groove that is slow enough before revealing that it was a complete fake-out; the song goes into half-time and begins in earnest about a minute in.

“Stop and Think” employs riffs and chord progression that deviate from the standard pentatonic scale and use several chromatic notes. Combined with the jittery, nervous drums, the song has a very unsettling texture.  The final section of this song, another slow jam with bits of vocals coming out of every corner, sounds like the soundtrack to a human sacrifice at a black mass. The final track is similarly unnerving; “Where’s Your Marlboro Man Now?” is an odd piece of musique concrete with spoken word over guitar feedback and what sounds like cars driving down a dark, rainy highway at night.

There are a few things that make this cassette a standout among works of this genre. The first is the production; the entire album sounds as though it is covered in a muddy veneer, making it very authentically ‘sludge’ rock.

The second is the presence of a female vocalist. The lack of women in rock, and heavy metal specifically, is a trend that has thankfully been changing over the past few decades. The singer here, Karrah Teague, is a little frightening in parts, especially when belting out long, sustained notes in the background of “Stop and Think.” For whatever reason, female vocals in a metal context are far more disconcerting (in a good way) than male vocals. Perhaps because of their rarity, perhaps because of the social mores that girls are ‘nicer’ than boys, whatever. It works.

The third reason that this album is superior is because of the rhythm section. Too many bands, especially metal bands, put way too much of the spotlight on the singer and the guitars. They forget that what made Black Sabbath truly great is that they possessed perhaps the greatest rhythm section in rock history. Velvet Elvis, likewise, has an incredible rhythm section. Since this music relies so heavily on rhythm and groove, this is an absolute necessity and the band measures up to the standard much better than most.

I would suggest laying down with your headphones on, turning off all of your lights (except for your lava lamp) and zoning out to Velvet Elvis, a great, heavy experimental rock band with lots of potential. That’s exactly what I did.

__________________________________________________________

Review by Liam McManus


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