Somewhere in the tangle of stoner metal and hard rock, where the sinew of heavy distortion meets the sweet muscle of melody and hook, lay the spark of what just might be my favorite kind of music. Hard, biting, but never afraid to grab onto a hook and hold on for dear life. Sometimes you want to roar and smash your head, and sometimes you just want to close your eyes, reach out to the universe and sing along loud enough to let it know you exist, you matter, and you feel the connection the music brings.
The point being, again (for those that missed it the last time): Lo-Pan. Specifically their new album Subtle, which is anything but when it comes to my adoration for it.
From the moment you hear a guitar being plugged in to the fuzz-drenched roar that blasts out of the gate on opener “Ten Days” there’s something different about the band from 2017’s standout release, the In Tensions EP. Being the first release with guitarist Chris Thompson there was something to prove, and “Ten Days” does that, roaring with an aggressive attack that twists the volcanic pipes of Jeff Martin into a guttural scream that brings the entire song up front with an edge that’s reminiscent of the best of forgotten heroes Only Living Witness.
From that blast of power things settle into a groove machine that amply displays why genre aside, Lo-Pan are simply one of the best rock bands out there right now. Both “Savage Heart” and the outstanding “Ascension Day” assert that timeless quality that make the songs feel like they could have come out 25 years earlier yet don’t sound the least bit dated. So much of that is due to Martin’s voice, making every verse and chorus so addicting you’re compelled to sing along, whether you know the lyrics or not. Thompson, along with bassist Skot Thompson ensure the music they’re creating serves the entire band, not just Martin’s dulcet pipes, and the way the bass locks in with drummer Jesse Bartz is machine tight while still audibly organic. If you can create a rhythm that tight and loose simultaneously, you can pretty much throw anything on top of it and it’s gonna make hips move and heads sway.
Fortunately the band isn’t just throwing anything on top: they’re constructing some of the most righteous rock songs you can get. “Sage” burns with that Clutch boogie bass, but Martin’s voice and the choice to hit the verse with an acoustic riff before bringing the roar up make it better than most of Clutch’s last release. Subtle is filled with these wonderfully odd touches, such as the increasingly distorted jazz opening of “Old News, New Fire” which gradually warps and drowns in a locked down riff that circles and buzzes around the verses. “Bring Me a War” is another immediate rager but unexpectedly opens up with some beautifully distorted open chord rings before diving back into the palm-muted attack. And “Butcher’s Bill” expands the band’s consciousness with ambient keyboards that blend in and out of the riffs to lend weight to the overall arc and structure of the song.
Somewhere people are listening to Subtle and Lo-Pan and closing their eyes. They’re feeling the passion and grace found in the way music can connect to something larger, and in those moments, if you watch carefully, you can see the faintest hint of a smile as they catch the wavelength and move out above the Earth on a hook that stretches for miles.