Windhand doesn’t do things on a small scale. They don’t write singles. They don’t burst out into minute-long grindcore or hardcore exercises. And they’re pretty much never going to have a short, punchy headbanger anthem along the lines of “Ace of Spades” or “Breaking the Law.” That’s just not how they do things. The music is drawn out of them as if summoned by occult ritual, one riff being repeated and emphasized like a sacred chant. “No matter what we do, or how we try not to make it that long, we end up playing it over and over again,” vocalist Dorthia Cottrell told me in an interview recently. “It’s just so trance-like and fun.”
It’s infectious, too: The band’s 75-minute second album, and first for Relapse, Soma was an easy album to get lost in. Windhand’s dense, awe-inspiring wall of guitars has a tendency to put the listener in a spell more than simply pummel or pound, and as a result their six-, nine- or even 30-minute doom metal opuses feel as seductive as they do heavy. They’ll ask more than an hour of your day as a time commitment, but they’ll deliver a heady and massive doom metal experience that’s well worth the attention. Only four minutes shorter, the band’s third album Grief’s Infernal Flower isn’t any more sprawling than its predecessor, but with more tracks and greater diversity among them, it certainly feels as if they’re covering more ground.
The first two songs on Grief’s Infernal Flower, “Two Urns” and “Forest Clouds,” comprise a full side of music, and one that makes a strong case for being their best 17 minutes of music yet. The former is the first single, of sorts (as much as something can be said about an eight-minute psychedelic doom metal trip into the underworld), and its dense guitar smoke instantly marks it as uniquely the band’s own. Likewise, Cotrell’s multitracked, harmonized vocals lend it mystique beyond mere thunder. It’s a phenomenal song, so much more than an interconnected series of riffs, and the same can be said of the chunky psych-trip of “Forest Clouds.”
Cottrell has proven herself a strong songwriter outside of metal, as heard on her self-titled debut solo release from earlier this year, and that haunting folk aesthetic carries over to a pair of darkly beautiful tracks here, “Sparrow” being the stronger of the two. That Windhand allows these moments of space and serenity between their more ominous and roaring metal epics is part of what makes them so interesting. You get the impression that any song here could just as easily translate to an unplugged session, and in highlights like the bad-acid swing of “Crypt Key,” the hushed intro suggests it could go either way. Still, as satisfying as it is to hear the band slim down to relatively shorter lengths on “Crypt Key” or the equally badass “Hyperion,” it’s the pair of 14-minute monsters toward the end—”Hesperus” and “Kingfisher”—that are the showpieces. The former moves slowly, gradually pulling the listener down a forbidding vortex of effects and noxious fuzz, while the latter is more triumphant in its dark march, rising up to one of the greatest choruses on the entire album. The layers of Cottrell’s own vocals have a lot to do with that, lending more emotion and beauty to one of the beastliest songs they’ve ever written.
Windhand seem to pull off a sound that carries both more density and clarity at the same time on Grief’s Infernal Flower, which might be partially attributed to producer Jack Endino (Mudhoney, High on Fire). But sound was never an issue for Windhand; Soma already found their sound fully formed, with an impressively huge aesthetic to match. It’s the songwriting that’s more in focus here, and while there are definitely a lot more ideas on display on the album, some of them are deceptively simple. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine Windhand appealing to listeners only tentatively ready to dip their toes into the smoky waters of doom metal. It’s enough of a feat to come up with a great riff, but Windhand take it that much further by turning them into great melodies.