It feels like a contradiction to slap the term “workman-like” on a band whose style of music lies on the lonely stretch of desert road, where the sludgier aspects of doom dance with the boogied overdrive of stoner rock. The mind conjures hazy hallucinations of pot smoke curling around the stale molecules of beer and sweat, left alone in the air of a shack illuminated by tangled coils of Christmas lights, the orange glow of lighters against bowls and the blood moon laughing high in the sky. At least that’s what I see. Maybe you hang your stoner sludge doom hat on another hook, who am I to say? Regardless, it doesn’t stop me from admiring the lean, no frills methodology at work behind Telepath, the new album from San Francisco band HORNSS.
This style of music has gotten no end of play the past few years. There’s an accessible, nostalgic quality in the overdriven fuzz of the guitars, the rumbling low end, and the layered clean vocals that provide just enough of an anchor to the 70s for anyone to lick the lips of familiarity, even if what they’re connecting to is the vapor of a time they never knew. Doesn’t matter if you’re 25 or 45: your lizard brain recognizes the call of the riff, and your body shrugs into oblation to this 4X12 Celestion God. But as you bend in supplication something begins to twitch. Haven’t you heard this before? Like, dozens of times before? Are you kneeling at the Altar of Fuzz because of Pavlovian conditioning? Is this yet another “desert” band painting by numbers, showing you that yes: it is a cow, but only in that it has four legs and is spurting something that has the appearance of milk from a fleshy protuberance you’re guessing, hoping, is an udder? Or does HORNSS offer something that earns the automatic head nodding it induces?
No fear: Telepath picks up nicely from where previous album No Blood, No Sympathy (2014) left off. Recorded directly to analog tape by Tim Green, who also manned records by like-minded bands like Saviours, Melvins, and Comets on Fire, HORNSS keeps everything compact and tight for a genre known for its tendency to overindulge even at the best of times. With 11 songs clocking in at a lean 30 minutes, the band knows how to get in, make an impact, and get out. The longest song clocks in at only 3:19, a rarity in a style where one riff can easily last three times as long. Opener “St Genevieve” plays it classic, a rolling bass line crashes into a plodding Sabbath riff that washes against the shore in squalls of sound thanks to Mike Moracha and Nick Nava. For about 3 minutes you’re left thinking Telepath is going to play it safe, and then with a shot of feedback you’re launched into the true kickass start of the album, “Atrophic.” In under two minutes you’ve gone from sage to swinging violently back and forth, your shoes lost and your beard grown at least four inches. Five if you’re a dude.
If nothing else hits quite the same high as “Atrophic” nothing sinks too far below, either. “In Fields of Lyme” has the same sense of energy, but zigs halfway through to a bludgeoning dirge that leaves a sweet melodic mud on the soles of your soul. “Prince of a Thousand Enemies” is an awesome song title no matter how the music sounds – fortunately it sounds like a grungy Sabbath stomp, drummer Bil Bowman pounding the skins like he was trying to smite that abomination that, two paragraphs later I’m still not sure was a cow.
There’s a time and place for 20 minute jams and hymns hung on the thorns of cactus. There’s also a time for brevity, and knowing when to get in and get out has always served humanity better in the long run. HORNSS knows this intrinsically, and Telepath show them plying that knowledge for the benefit of our poor frazzled lizard brains.