From beginning to end, The Speed of Smoke oozes otherworldly psychedelia, doom/stoner grooves, and prog-rock leanings. The album is bookended by Dead Wood, a utility shed wall of doom, and Witches Brew, a fuzzy stick in the eye that whispers in both ears before collapsing your lungs with falling boulders. What lies between the two is what leaves the listener rewinding cassettes and gently dropping back the phonograph needle (yes, the album’s available in both wax and vinyl formats).
Buzzsaw guitar and wood-splitting drums are evident from the onset of Dead Wood, a tense and looming trip to a twisted-neck haze. From growls to country echoes, the vocals are too strong to let themselves be buried in the boil. Butcher then soars, falls, and settles into a stutter-step stomp, inducing involuntary nods and foot-taps. James Halcrow confidently swallows the mic and washes it down with jagged rock, while guitars move in every direction.
A low buzz bridges into Weakling, a bass-laden bounce that cooks down to a full-band assault. What steals the song’s thunder, though, is the confident use of a vocoder that’ll make you jealous of anyone who sported sideburns through the 1970’s. Halcrow’s space-robot gives way to his pissed-off lothario as he screams disparaging remarks too colorful for this review.
Bayou guitar-picking introduces Growing as keyboards hover and fade. The guitars here layer themselves, one by one, until bass enters and fills a low-tempo hike. The vocals are disgruntled and demented, the track ascends through darkness, and guitar work remains the highlight. Growing kinda feels like losing a long battle, though Wizard Smoke ultimately rise and earn the last laugh.
Prog-heavy Panama II trudges through an ominous chorus with bass and drums clicking just beyond space-cavern strings. The song dissects itself and you’ll enjoy a spiritual hum before returning to what sounds a bit like Link’s adventures through The Legend of Zelda.
Apprehension bubbles just before Witches Brew melts through riffs, jams, and a closing that most bands are too exhausted to actually pull off. This is one of the better albums you’ll hear this year. The track placement is perfect, the sounds are jaw-dropping, and the heavy is incessant. Put The Speed of Smoke on your “must-hear” list of 2011 and sit back as you’re guided through a black cosmos.