SHRINEBUILDER & THEM CROOKED VULTURES: GREAT EXPECTATIONS, PRETTY GOOD RESULTS
While there are more obvious statements than “supergroups more often than not fail to meet our expectations” – “fire will ruin your house” and “Guns N’ Roses have gone through numerous line-up changes” are tied with it – there aren’t many. And yet, with the announcement of a formation of one, excitement is usually the first emotion called upon. And while saying that supergroup prospects should immediately be met with caution is like saying a new car should be approached with the attitude that you will most likely wrap it around a tree, the failure/success ratio is sadly stacked toward the former. However, this usually isn’t the fault of the uber-collective, but our own gargantuan expectations assuming that this new band featuring members of other bands we like will be as good as all the involved bandmembers main projects COMBINED. And while there have been some out and out failures as of late (cough Greymachine cough), the other two most notable supergroups that reared their heads this year – scraggly doom metal gathering of titans Shrinebuilder and semi-unkempt gathering of some dudes from your uncle’s favorite bands Them Crooked Vultures – have gotten an unfair rap in the wake of their respective debuts’ releases. While to say the bands’ detractors dislike their albums because they don’t rival Neurosis, Sleep, the Melvins, Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age, or Led fucking Zeppelin is unfairly ignoring their actual grievances, to write off either Shrinebuilder or Them Crooked Vultures would be a damn shame, in that, while not reinventing any sort of wheel, in a year where the biggest supergroup commercially was Chickenfoot, a solid doom metal album and a solid stoner rock album are two pretty significant things to dismiss.
The most noticeable and admirable strong point about both bands is their chemistry. This is usually the lacking element in a supergoup, as like with some of the more recent non-pennant-winning Yankees rosters, one can’t throw a bunch of notable dudes together and expect them to be effective. The best ones – from Cream on up – are players that work well with one another, fostering an actual collaborative relationship unique from their noteworthy bands. A supergroup should be able to exist on its own merits, and both Shrinebuilder and Them Crooked Vultures do so. If anything, one should admire the pointed sense of purpose here: both bands clearly exist because of a spark between their respective members, and are making music not so much for the purposes of another paycheck in a nasty industry environment (well, not SIMPLY because of that, perhaps) but because they’re genuinely interested in making music in a different context than what they’re used to.
Of course, does this spark and effort yield worthwhile music? For the most part, yes. Though impossibly high expectations are, as stated above, a silly thing to deride a band for, they’re hard to avoid when hearing about the lineup of Shrinebuilder. Boner-worthy to the majority of people who’ve ever had long hair, Shrinebuilder’s gathering of Sleep/Om’s Al Cisneros, sludgy-era Nirvana/Melvins’ Dale Crover, Neurosis’ Scott Kelly, and 1/5 of doom metal’s Scott “Wino” Weinrich had even this writer expecting an epic doom masterpiece that would rival Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Of course, it’s not that. It’s admittedly not even close. But what came up in its place is a damn fine stoner doom album from front to back. Brilliant riffs abound, and hearing the bandmembers’ eccentricities — Wino’s marijuana-haze leads and Ozzy-like vocals, Kelly’s droning chords and charred croon and bark, Cisneros’ masterful riff-cradling basslines, and Crover’s merciless bashing of the china cymbal – gel together in a new context doesn’t yield the image of four limos pulling up to a studio, but instead four like-minded guys passing a bowl around and gushing about trad metal. And the songs aren’t that bad either: the epic, classic doom riffing of “Solar Benediction,” the Neurosis-minus-the-despair unfurling of “Pyramid of the Moon,” and the inspired jamming that closes out “The Science of Anger” are all worthwhile jaunts. Though the album is a disappointment at first (what with it not CHANGING THE FACE OF METAL AS WE KNOW IT and all), it stays with you. Fans of the four (plus) bands of origin won’t have blown minds at the end of the album, but its results certainly aren’t boring. In fact, the results are quite interesting and enjoyable. What more do you want?
Oh, right. All that other stuff. Them Crooked Vultures don’t necessarily live up to those expectations either, but theirs is arguably a steeper hill to climb. Queens of the Stone Age/Kyuss guitarist Josh Homme and Foo Fighters/money-era Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl last collaborated on tape for Songs for the Deaf, the last excellent QOTSA album, and John Paul Jones has been (relatively) reclusive since Zeppelin’s breakup (also present: Alain Johannes). So even though the band emerged for the first time earlier this year (though they’ve been floating around since 2005 via rumor), one couldn’t be faulted for expecting Homme’s return to excellent songwriting with what could be one of the most amazing rhythm sections possible in rock right now. And, the thing is, so long as you’re somewhat realistic about the results, the band, to some extent, delivers. It’s easily the best thing Homme’s done since Songs for the Deaf, and the band sounds remarkably loose and spontaneous despite its rock-gods-in-a-band-together pedigree.
Like Shrinebuilder, the most interesting aspect of their debut is hearing the players’ personalities in a new context and working off eachother. While this is definitely Homme’s show, it’s interesting to hear how much some of his riffs (most likely guided by John Paul Jones, of course) and Grohl’s drumming (in full-on Bonham mode… uh, moreso) sound reminiscent of primo Zeppelin; if “No One Loves Me & Neither Do I” couldn’t have shown up onside one of Physical Graffiti or Presence, I’ll eat my goddamn hat. But the renewed sense of energy does Homme good, and with Grohl’s massive stickwork and Jones’ subtle-but-solid bass playing – both a joy to hear whenever they turn up – make Them Crooked Vultures much less of a letdown than you’d think. Though the record’s final third – from “Interlude with Ludes” (up there with “Smells Like Kevin Bacon” in the Dumbest Fucking Song Titles Ever contest) forward – goes a little too off the deep end for its own good, the band is a joy to hear, and with Foo Fighters on hiatus, Led Zeppelin apparently done reuniting so Robert Plant can make Grammy-winning bluegrass albums, and Queens of the Stone Age putting out so-so album after so-so album, it’ll be interesting to hear the band grow and flourish.
The problem with both albums, though, is the lack of an “essential” quality. Both Shrinebuilder and Them Crooked Vultures lie in the valley between “pretty good” and “really good,” but don’t feel like they HAD to be made. And from a group of guys that made Times of Grace, Dopesmoker, Nevermind, and Led Zeppelin II, high expectations be damned, one wouldn’t be out of line to maybe expect a little more. However, it’s definitely nice they were made, and there’s no indication that either band won’t make an essential album. Both Shrinebuilder and Them Crooked Vultures show great promise. And if you disagree, it’s not like any of these guys quit their main gigs to do so. Don’t believe the backlash and disappointment: it certainly could have been worse. It could have been Damnocracy, or worse, Audioslave.
(3 1/2 out of 5 horns)