Anyone who’s been watching Kurt Vile explore the experience of a man and his guitar for a while now can be forgiven for thinking, upon a listening of “Pretty Pimpin'”, “Oh, he’s found a beat, good for him.” Vile’s stock-in-trade has been hazy dissipation for some time now, through his solo debut Smoke Ring For My Halo and into his excessively sprawling, hazy-to-the-point-of-incoherence sophomore follow up Wakin On A Pretty Daze. On b’lieve i’m goin down… Vile snaps back into focus, like coming out of a particularly deep stoned reverie.
This isn’t to say that he’s lost the meandering quality. A number of songs on here – the ones that stretch out towards the seven minute mark, mainly – are strongly reminiscent of his work on the last album, where you start losing the plot around the four minute mark and you never really recover it. “That’s Life Tho (almost hate to say)” and “Lost My Head There” are the worst offenders of this sort, but they’re balanced off by the melodic success of tracks like “I’m An Outlaw”, “Dust Bunnies”, and “Bad Omens”. The album works on that careful balance the entire way, teetering between focused, song-oriented work and the hazy, lengthy jams he’s particularly known for. The song-oriented tracks are a nice break from the jams, which don’t run quite as overlong as they did on Wakin On A Pretty Daze, but come close.
Ultimately Kurt Vile is at his best when he’s mining out a Crazy Horse-esque pattern with languid, stoned vocals, and that’s precisely what’s on offer here. It can get a bit exhausting at times but there’s always something to draw you back in, especially if you wear your hair long and keep a baggie of herbal medicine in your bedside table.
Legacies are tricky things for bands to maintain. Styles change, viewpoints go in and out of fashion, and there are bands (like The Who) that seem to swing on a continuous pendulum between being cool and being what my mother once called “fogey rock”. Some groups, like the Stones or the Boss, avoid having to keep up with their legacies simply by never stopping the active musical phase of their career. Some groups, however, cast such a wide net of influence that their presence can be felt in a distributed network of power, divided out over a legion of bands who reinforce and reproduce their sound. If Foucault had ever written about rock ‘n’ roll bands, he would have been fascinated with the legacy of Black Sabbath.
There are whole genres of music dedicated to the output of the Birmingham hard rock pioneers. “Doom Metal” is just another way of saying “we play the slower Sabbath songs with deeper distortion on the guitars.” “Stoner Rock” is just another way of saying “we play the faster Sabbath songs and you can pry our tube amplifiers away from our cold dead hands.” This is not to say that bands within those genres can transcend their influences and become something greater; Sleep began as a band of blatant Sabbath worshippers and ended up as #2 in the stoner/doom pantheon. Queens Of The Stone Age began with fusing their love of Sabbath riffs with clipped, breezy desert phrasing and ended up being every rockist’s go-to band of choice.
Then there’s The Sword. The Texas band has been blazing a trail of their own for several years now, getting on to most people’s radars with their well-regarded third album Warp Riders and then keeping the Sabbath Dream alive by peaking on the Billboard 200 at #17 with 2012’s Apocryphon. This sort of success tends to bring a band like The Sword to a crossroads: you can either continue to double-down on the Tony Iommi riffs or you can try to diversify. There are problems with both – contempt through familiarity vs. alienating your fanbase for potentially little growth – and that’s probably why the band uses High Country to walk a line between doing both. The album is largely Sabbath-inspired hard rock riffs, but there are moments here and there where different moments of the 1970s surface. It boogies in places. There are flourishes of psychedelic rock. Rather than being a rote re-do of the sludge-metal heroics of Warp Riders, High Country dials up some Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult and proceeds to party. It’s a sunnier and more open album than their previous efforts, and while it’s still indebted to the ghosts of the Seventies, it’s a path for progress that doesn’t require completely reinventing the band from the ground up. Thus, while it doesn’t quite achieve the heights of the past, it’s also much better than it could – should – have been. It sets the band up well to transcend the doomy Sabbath influence and forge something more lasting toward the stoner/doom canon – something like Sleep, or QOTSA, or even something like fellow Texans …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: a mix of discrete influences that becomes something new.