Not long ago, West Midlands UK-based sludge outfit Sealclubber were a hot item on Metal Twitter for the span of a few hours. Not for their progressive, post-rock inflected brand of sludge/hardcore or the overwhelming power of their sound, but for their name. It makes sense — no right-minded person would clearly condone clubbing seals for sport, profit, or otherwise — but when you’re dealing with sludge metal, the aim is decadence and polarization. Name connotations aside, their first full-length Stoical is a solid, if somewhat uneven, offering of paint-peeling feedback, ugly crust/sludge riffs, and occasional forays into atmospheric territory.
Crusty, atmospheric sludge metal is on the verge of becoming as pedestrian as the thrash revival of the 00s; while Sealclubber aren’t digging themselves out of this particular trench, they do a great job of refining some of the lazy songwriting within the low-and-slow niche. One thing that distinguishes Sealclubber is their willingness to veer into straight-up crust punk territory, such as on “Haima,” which brings bands such as His Hero is Gone to mind with its pounding d-beat rhythms and explosive dissonance. Additionally, the “post” moments don’t detour into fluffy, whimsical territory or shoegazing pedal wankery; the opening clean guitars on “Vows of Silence,” soaked in reverb, form the foundation for the relentless rolling rhythm for the song’s first section, and likewise, its second quiet section swims in brooding, uneasy tension before kicking into gear as one of the album’s truest doom-style riffs cycles back on itself until the song’s ambient ending. Stoical is refreshing in that the band are fusing dissonance with progressive songwriting while keeping an iron grip on the hardcore influences present in sludge metal.
One of Stoical‘s strengths is its sense of navigating between aspects of sludge, hardcore, and crust without doing so arbitrarily: Opening track “Tales of a Romanian Horse Whisperer” seamlessly goes from frenetic bursts of crust punk to stomping breakdowns and even a moment of post-metal, as a melodic lead guitar enters and quickly leaves, like seeing a single ray of sun before the clouds obscure it again. It’s in the second half of this track that the album’s main weakness begins to show, however. Just as you think the song is ending with cavernous clean guitars, another riff swells in, but by this point, the momentum is lost and the last few minutes of the song are spent beating this single idea into a dead horse. Instrumental closer “I Only Desire the Things That Will Destroy Me,” which is the album’s full exploration of apocalyptic, sparse post-rock, wanders on the same chord progression for half of its playing time — though there are some great melodic bass lines with a good sense of building and releasing tension — and feels tacked on, as if the extra 12 minutes would take Stoical from EP length into full album territory. The last four minutes alone could have been a great song, but the eight minutes leading up make the payoff hardly worth it. The halfway interlude, “St. Jude’s Waiting Room, Dead for 12 Days,” while adding a creepy ambience, doesn’t contribute much either, other than providing respite between some of the album’s longer cuts.
These flaws aside, Stoical is a quite enjoyable release. I anticipate Sealclubber making a stir over the year’s course, and not just because of their name. With some of the meandering removed and some trimming away of extraneous elements, Sealclubber could become a potent force in the international sludge scene with enough elements from other niches to distinguish them from hordes of amp worship bands.