The warlock and the barbarian: Ufomammut and Conan

A cynical reading of the 21st century stoner boom would turn away from any intrinsic appeal the genre holds and look externally to explain the cause. One would be its links to classic rock, attracting listeners well beyond the metal community. Another would be the fact that compared to other subgenres, the basic components are relatively easy to master on a technical level to achieve a halfway passable sound. Another would be the space left in the underground after the slow, painful demise of death and black metal as popular yet still legitimate art forms. And as with the rise of any new subgenre, there will be instigators and there will be hangers on that follow in their wake. It’s just that in the case of stoner metal, the instigators were not all that interesting to start with, and the hangers on even less so. The result is even larger numbers of average or sub average artists, with little to offset this in terms of quality. If we think of this like a pyramid, the base is even flatter and wider than normal, with an unimpressively low peak. It don’t take much to produce an acceptable stoner album, uniformity abounds as a result. Nevertheless, on this wearily long, flat beach there are some interest pebbles to take note of and collect.

Italy’s Ufomammut have forged a discography that has progressed from meat ‘n’ veg stoner doom – albeit a highly atmospheric version – to an ultra-minimal heavy sludge operation, one that has played down the riffage in favour of carving out tones and moods out of the most basic of chord progressions. Hawkwind is a heavily referenced artist and this influence only becomes more pronounced as the releases progressed, until we come to 2017’s ‘8’, which would feel like a transitional album if there were anything after it that this were transitioning to. Ufomammut have progressed from a relatively basic stoner outfit to their mid period clutch of albums which were monolithically heavy and laced with dark, brooding atmospheres, – sometimes abrasive, sometimes meditative – by comparison ‘8’ dials things back some in the heaviness department.

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The riffs have taken on a more garage rock approach in places, albeit with Ufomammut’s trademark meandering and patiently layered approach to track construction. The spacerock vibe is stronger than ever and persists from start to finish. But it’s underpinned by minimal yet rhythmically charged heavy rock, resulting in what is – dare I say it – a more playful experience. This is a different beast to the one that produced ‘Idolum’ or ‘Eve’. It feels like they have dialled down the intensity and the ambitious soundscapes for the sake of fleshing out a new timbre and lick of paint to the by now well-trodden ground of the Ufomammut template. The result is a less unified work, but one that nevertheless has many surprises to reveal. Not least the aforementioned hints at a light hearted nature spirit, which far from coming off as dumbing down their sound actually enhances it in places.

Further, there is a marked experimental edge to many of the passages as they build throughout the course of a track. And this is where the transitional vibe ultimately stems from. As is common with artists with a well established sound trying to break into new territory, the first attempt can often be a little shaky and disjointed in places. And that’s precisely what ‘8’ is. Engaging moments abound, but the rigid conceptual unity that usually defines a Ufomammut album is somewhat lacking. It feels like the next step would have been to firm up these looser experimental elements into a more rigid and developed work that brings some of their more brooding and minimal atmospheric work back into the fold. As things stands, this comes across as an honest and non-too-clunky attempt to push this project into a new phase with many worthy moments, but one that just falls short in the final execution of the idea.

The career of Liverpool’s Conan is pretty archetypal of stoner doom. Introducing just enough variation and depth to avoid accusations of one-trickness, but so little in the way of imagination that listening to them becomes an exercise in tantric sonic-wanking with no climax. It becomes a meaningless cycle of drone and sludge, to more upbeat stoner doom, back to drone, maybe throw in a new guitar tone here and there, and then we’re back to sludge. Their latest offering, 2018’s ‘Existential Void Guardian’ brings us back to a more energetic heavy rock format aided by what sounds like an HM-2 peddle. And this is one area where I will credit these Liverpudlians. They do just enough with the opening riffs and guitar tone to grab the attention, but fail to reward as each track meanders along its directionless road to boredom.

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If all one craves from music is doomy tempos, minimal two chord riffs, and a thick and heavy guitar tone then Conan have a lot to offer. The distant shouting that makes up their entire vocal range also serves this aesthetic well. But once these elements are put in place they need to be taken somewhere. And sadly Conan’s idea of variation or narrative progression is the same riff at twice the tempo, or half the tempo, or played a fifth higher. It feels like the skeleton of music, the metal framework upon which something more needs to hang. It hits the gut with the initial impact, and one can tell Conan spend a lot of time perfecting this, but it occurs to the detriment of actually developing what little there is in the way of compositional intrigue.

One further thing to note that reinforces this opinion is Conan’s choice of drummer. I have said many times that drums are of the upmost importance when it comes to all forms of doom metal. If used intelligently they can bind the music together in a more pronounced and creativity way than other, less spacious forms of metal. They act as both a technical foundation but also have the potential to be at their most creative and emotive. Conan have gone through at least three drummers by this point, and all three have been the most interesting musician on the recorded works they appear on. ‘Existential Void Guardian’ is no exception. Rhythmically there’s not much to comment on when it comes to Conan, they play slow, they play fast, time signatures rarely vary (not that they need to, but given there’s little of anything else going here maybe it wouldn’t hurt). But the shear, energetic and unbridled skin bashing that Johnny King treats us to here is a pleasure to behold. Because he is provided ample room by the minimal riffage to get creative with the most basic of rhythmic patterns, the primal joy of his playing shines through, and lifts the music when required above near unbearable boredom.

Taken as a simple by the numbers scientific analysis both these artists are not really doing anything all that different. Sure, Ufomammut lace their sound with static and a little more psychedelia, but at the most basic, musical level they are as different as night and later that night. But the experience we walk away from after spinning each album is wildly different simply because Ufomammut have gone hell for leather in piecing their components together with more care and patience. It is not for reasons of minimalism that we dismiss an artist like Conan, it is for reasons of laziness. It’s the difference between finding a baseline of quality and sticking with it, as opposed to finding that baseline and building on it. So Ufomammut’s ‘8’ is the clear pick of the week this time around. Conan gets a pass for some mild intrigue in aesthetics and a truly joyful drum track, but sadly this is not enough to warrant the album’s worth of material we must sit through on ‘Existential Void Guardian’.

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