To a large degree, most bands that would clump themselves in that elusive drone metal category (stoner, doom, call it what you will) seem to rely on a pretty meager repertoire of moves. Many groups in the genre have come to depend on the drone metal two-step, opting either for endless monotonous guitar churn or gusts of distorted Sabbath riffage, seldom straying beyond those two increasingly outdated modes of expression. Sadly, this has led to pockets of creative stagnation in the field, and with so many groups content to mire in a tarry stew of endless guitar feedback, a lot of what was initially exciting about this subculture has become flat-out boring.
This is what makes hearing Crown Fire, the Portland, Maine juggernauts Conifer’s second album, such an unexpected breath of fresh air. Initial listens left me confused and generally unimpressed, but like the lush and verdant foliages from which the band bears its name, it grew on me. In fact, before hearing the album, I wouldn't have thought that their brand of music would be something I'd even want to hear, let alone work in the first place. Sharing members with fellow Portlanders Ocean, Conifer have a great potential to resurrect a scene that’s been in danger of flat-lining for some time. The band, versed in an array of styles, isn’t afraid to flaunt its dilettantism, as evident on tracks like "A Song for Krom," which, after pounding away for seven minutes, breaks out into a King Crimson-esque interlude, complete with Eastern-tinged psychedelic flutes and imploding police siren analog sine waves, and "Breathe Hold," whose delayed guitar arpeggios sound amazingly like Gamelan music. These tracks, and most of the material on Crown Fire, showcase the band’s unwillingness to stagnate in purist modes.
Like Earth’s Dylan Carlson, band leader and guitarist Zachary Howard slings a baritone guitar, an all but discontinued style of axe with a longer scale length. This allows for lower tunings and more bass receptive resonance. And as is evident on tracks like "Surface Fire" and "Cruciform Empennage," it does indeed provide a deeper, earthier, more organic feel, one whose sound is undeniably more soulful than its trebly cousin. On the former track, Howard leads the group through metered buildups, climbing a double-helix ladder to nirvana before converging in a holy trinity of crossing guitar and organ notes and taking off on a magic carpet of offset polyrhythms. In fact, much of what Conifer does seems to be in the interest of self-proliferation -- natural growth and upward momentum are cornerstones of their style.
Aside from one slight misstep with title track "Crown Fire," which features Oxbow weirdo Eugene Robinson's puerile penis antics and sexual ramblings, Crown Fire is a nearly flawless outing from a burgeoning band.
1. Surface Fire
2. Cruciform Empennage
3. A History of Disappointment
4. Song For Krom
6. Into the Gauntlet
7. Crown Fire