It's funny that L.A.’s Ancestors initially formed as a stoner-metal jam band in 2006. The idea sounds so uninspired. Presumably, they wanted to fuse massive Black Sabbath-styled riffs with The Grateful Dead’s loose sense of song structure, a combination that, in concert, would have wandered aimlessly at maximum volume. But with artists like The Melvins, Sleep, and Neurosis already having claimed similar territory, I’m not sure what Justin Maranga (guitar, vocals), Nick Long (bass), and Brandon Pierce (drums) could have added. Thank goodness the trio grew bored with this direction and decided to expand their sound to include organ (Jason Watkins) and keyboard/electronics (Chico Foley). Not only did the resulting quintet incorporate a wider range of instruments and influences -- King Crimson, Karl Stockhausen, Miles Davis -- but they also found new ways to explore familiar terrain. Here’s the irony: the band that began as a trite retread of metal’s recent history spends most of their latest release, Of Sound Mind, asserting themselves as one of the genre’s next pioneers.
Intended as a double LP on vinyl, the new album consists of four long pieces bracketed by shorter instrumental interludes. “Mother Animal,” the first of the longer pieces, begins with a monumental guitar homage to Sabbath, complete with doom-laden lyrics that reference pagan rituals: “Slowly the season brings release/ From the famine of the beast…/ August has come/ Harvest has begun.” The song continues along well-established patterns; low-tuned guitars weave through pastoral passages, while Maranga screams indecipherable phrases. Up to this point, Of Sound Mind sounds like every other psychedelic metal album out there, but then, unexpectedly, the tempo slows and Watkins’ organ moves to the foreground. With this shift, the band confounds all expectations. It’s a radical choice in such a guitar-oriented genre, but having the organ take the lead is undeniably refreshing. Soon after, Maranga abandons the standard metal growl for a cleaner intonation, and what started as an obvious Black Sabbath tribute ends with an elaborate trip into progressive rock territory.
Clearly, Ancestors take devious pleasure in building expectations in one direction, then quickly heading toward another. In a live setting, this approach is fun for both the audience and band members alike. Further, the group also seems to enjoy creating new combinations from unanticipated source materials. “The Trial,” for example, fuses Oceanic-era Isis with the ambient textures of early Autechre to great effect. Indeed, the band knows that it has paired two extremes in mixing metal with ambient electronica, but while referencing Isis’ cerebral version of sludge metal is expected, adding electronics in the vein of Autechre’s bleak soundscapes is not. Sure, Neurosis and Pyramids have flirted with similar ideas, and, yes, Lustmord and Jesu are entirely devoted to exploring the darker side of ambient music. But none of them have rendered this combination so effectively.
Still, it helps to remember that this is a double album, and like many double LPs, there are uneven moments. Sometimes Ancestors’ efforts to create uncanny arrangements fail to impress; these particular selections work as more traditional heavy metal tracks, but they don’t expand any boundaries. And while Watkins’ training as a classical pianist turns the final instrumental piece, “Challenging,” into a highlight, most of the shorter interludes work only as transitional filler. Only two albums in, it’s difficult to declare this as Ancestors’ magnum opus, but as far as mountaintop experiences go, this is close to summiting Everest.
1. From Nothing
2. Mother Animal
3. Not The Last Return
4. Bounty Of Age
5. A Friend
6. The Trial
8. The Ambrose Law