Cough’s Still They Pray will sound familiar to fans of sludgey, doomy music. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Cough plays a style of metal that resists wild experimentation and rewards consistency. It’s difficult, after all, for a band to write slow, dreary songs that aren’t boring; or to play loosely and nimbly and be crushingly heavy; or to wring something vital out of a sound that many others have visited and re-visited since the days of Black Sabbath. Cough does all these things, and quite well. This album is so absorbing that you won’t care if other bands can do these things, too.
Still They Pray was produced by Jus Oborn of Electric Wizard, a band with which Cough has more than a little in common. But while Electric Wizard sometimes imbues their songs with a sense of urgency, and a smirking kind of devil worship, Cough is more somber and deliberate. Occasionally you can tell Electric Wizard is having fun; Cough wants you to know they’re goddamn miserable — and it shows. Long stretches of this album are like the soundtrack to being fatally wounded. The band staggers forward, riff by riff, scream by scream, not so much progressing through each song as doubling down on an aesthetic of wretchedness. In this sense, Still They Pray feels like a one way ticket. From the opening fanfare of feedback on “Haunter of the Dark” — one of the strongest songs, swaying and vaguely nautical, and certainly my favorite — you know what you’re going to get. And get it you shall.
Long, dirge-like passages pile up in the album’s first half. But Still They Pray has its livelier moments, especially when the band unleashes the wah-wah pedal. It is thrilling to hear that thing in action, snarling and howling like some feral animal scampering across a blasted landscape. Such minor modifications — an unexpected texture, a slight uptick in tempo, a rhythmic shift — feel monumental against an otherwise steady sound. They push this album toward greatness. See, for instance, a transition just before 7:30 in “Possession.” I heard this and thought: behold the riff. Don’t tell the band, but I think I even smiled.
I have long suspected that at the secret heart of every sludge metal band is a power ballad. Think about it: the dutiful slowness, the sweeping emotional gestures, the single-minded themes (of love and desire, maybe, or weed and the devil). Cough reminded me of this with their subdued and sauntering “Let It Bleed.” (I don’t believe any band, The Rolling Stones included, has a monopoly on song titles, but this is a distracting choice.) On Cough’s “Let It Bleed,” the intensity dissipates and we’re left with something ballad-ish. It breaks up the album nicely but the band doesn’t seem to know what kind of song this should be: a rare misstep. They more convincingly detour into mellow territory with the final song, the title track, bleakly strummed on an acoustic guitar. It’s a fittingly mournful end to an album that, on the whole, sounds like a very sad and very loud funeral for a very large guitar amp. And that makes sense. Cough plays with the reverence befitting a funeral, and with the same devotion to ritual. It signals that the ritual is worth carrying out, even if carried out a thousand times before — and they’re right. So please, pay your respects.