Album Review: Heavy Sleeper – Idol and the Whip
Maybe we’ll start with some basics: Ann Arbor’s Idol & The Whip is a four-piece band that has undergone a number of changes, shuffling membership at bass and second guitar over the years. Their current lineup includes the addition of Nik Tyckowski on bass and Matt Gauntlett on second guitar to round out the core foundation of Adam Tatro on drums and Chris Plumb on guitar and lead vocals (you may recognize some of those names from bastions of the local metal scene like Incisor and Supercontinent). In spite of all that change, they’ve managed to grow as a band and put out a record in 2011’s Heavy Sleeper that is a significant step forward from their debut full-length, Revelator.
Heavy Sleeper is a collection of songs that is a wild melting pot of influence, thumbing its nose at even the most cursory attempts at categorization. Here is a shortlist of touchstones I’ve compiled for the listener’s benefit: Torche, Thin Lizzy, The Jesus Lizard, Shellac, Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss, Fugazi, Foo Fighters, Nirvana, early Baroness, and Tori Amos. Only one of those is false.
Even though they wear a lot these influences on their sleeves, Idol & The Whip is not a band that is satisfied with sounding like one thing. They’ll take a discernible influence or two, run it through the trusty old “nasty bastard” machine, and warp the influence so that it wants to fornicate with a genre from another aisle in the record store. This process often yields a mutant baby of a song that siphons its power from varying sources, roughing you up and leaving you with the distinct feeling that you need to listen again because what the fuck was that? Why can’t I stop air-drumming?
In the past I’ve criticized albums that seem to be a free-for-all of influence because this is often a sign of a dearth in originality and the absence of an identity. Heavy Sleeper is the diametrical opposite: original to the point that it truly defies codification yet remains anchored by a firm identity. It is a record whose blueprint is drafted with riffs, and those riffs are influenced by the architecture of heavy rock and metal in equal measures.
The opening track, “Future Eyes,” is a slam-dunk-from-half-court way to get into the record, a smashing success. This is primarily because it sets the tone perfectly yet doesn’t sound like much of the rest of the record (again, how do they do that?). Twin lead guitars dance around each other recalling the strongest of Thin Lizzy’s riffage. They distinguish themselves with a massive tone that is at once smooth and punishing, occupying some sort of middle ground between the low-end tightness of Torche and the fluidity of a band like Baroness. The drums thunder and are ever-present in the sound field, a testament to how beautifully-produced this record is.
Heavy Sleeper is not entirely rife with successes; the song “Artery,” seems to interrupt the pace of the record with its bummer-inducing melodies. It is sort of awkward in the context of the rest of the album, at least until the song blossoms with some satisfying and methodical riffs that recall the work members of this band have done in Supercontinent. There are occasional moments like this that can drag, but even if they do, this is such a strong collection of songwriters all you have to do is wait a bit and one of the numerous standout tracks will surely grab you.
There’s “Grasscutter,” a nod to the 90’s filtered through that nasty-bastard machine, with the catchiest vocal hook belted to perfection by Plumb; “Watery Grave,” the minute-long punk masterpiece that is all the demonstration one needs of what tight songwriters these guys are, channeling Bleach-era Nirvana; “Heavy Sleeper,” the plodding and brutal title track, where the Jesus Lizard meets twenty bajillion watts of amp-anger; “Nocturne,” the sci-fi epic that somehow shoehorns a waltz into a spooky space-boot; and the triumphant cycle is completed with the closing track “Calling Down the Dark,” another Thin Lizzy-esque power ballad infused with nuanced death metal runs.
Heavy Sleeper is a record that I will concede to. I’m not good enough to come up with a name for what they do. Beard Rock? Wasteland Boogie? Metalrock? Rockle? Mackerel? All I can say is that I love this record because it’s so intelligently constructed, the work of some mad music scientists. It is an education in heavy music that can at once kick your ass and blow your mind. Be prepared to air guitar involuntarily.
Actually, I kind of like Beard Rock.