Red-Fang-Whales-And-Leeches[xrr rating=3.5/5]One glance at the absurdly maximal album art decorating Red Fang’s Whales and Leeches, it’s fair to expect Red Fang’s third effort to be a more wigged-out, adventurous affair than 2011’s Murder The Mountains. Nevertheless, comparisons to Mastodon or the Sword were more apt that last time around, Whales and Leeches sharing more in common with the Portland crew’s eponymous debut; the heavy metal riffage is pretty straightforward, frenzied and consistently noisy, absent enough surprises to lighten the mood. Red Fang’s simple, beer-sweat stomp is still welcome, but it doesn’t feel nearly as endearing without the grizzled spontaneity that drenched early successes like “Prehistoric Dog” or “Witness” and defined their hilariously goofy “Jackass” inspired videos. Even when they’re rehashing the same sounds, Red Fang is pretty enjoyable, but that doesn’t make it less of a letdown when they’re capable of more. Minus opener “Doen,” the album’s opening salvo is a breakneck crash of thundering hooks that gets repetitive pretty quick.

Whales and Leeches notably lacks some of party-haggard passion that made Red Fang so much fun to blast with the windows down, but Whales and Leeches is truly successful when Red Fang slows up enough to reveal slight nuances in their formula and a brooding dread below the surface of that brash pummeling. Only one of these tracks crawls along at the fatigued marathon pace of stoner rock’s doomier side, but “Doen,” “Dawn Rising,” “Failure” and “Every Little Twist” all act as essential reminders that Red Fang can step out beyond the towering jungles of boozy riffs. Before kicking into single “Blood Like Cream,” featuring the most obvious and immediate hook on the record, “Doen” boils with a surge of atonal, circling guitar. The song’s unnerving breakdown lurches in direct contrast to the rest of the song’s locomotive pacing, but also the kind of tone that Red Fang used so extensively on their first album. “Dawn Rising” starts with a perfect psych-out, hammering on a regimented thrash melody before stopping entirely and abruptly shifting to a hypnotic dirge. Sludge-doom veteran Mike Scheidt (of Yob) lends an equally unexpected vocal, Scheidt’s dynamic howl a surprisingly natural foil to Aaron Beam’s usual growl. Finished by subtle tempo shifts and a jumpy stereo mix, the song’s various details combine into a heady seven-minute monster.

“Failure” and “Every Little Twist” are both patient and relentless rockers, “Failure” working with a massive, spacious soundstage and “Every Little Twist” a psychedelic grind that fills in every last pocket of air. It’s a shame they arrive so late in the album – though competent and enthusiastic, the front half on Whales and Leeches can be a bit of a slog – because these later standouts are the kind of expressive songs that demonstrate Red Fang maturing as a unit and exploring more uncertain ideas to great success. “Failure” opens with a bristly military cadence, the song’s central melody a chugging, lumbering beast paired with guttural vocals. Two more urgent songs blaze by before “Every Little Twist” launches into its spacey jam, Bryan Giles and Beam’s voices tangled together into an eerie inhuman amalgamation while the vamping drum beat and ouroboros guitar figure spread out like Monster Magnet’s circa Spine of God. It’s easily the most memorable song on Whales and Leeches – a natural closer. Even if a few too many tracks are tempting to skip, mostly because Red Fang has done similar songs better before, these more experimental successes ensure Whales and Leeches isn’t just going through the hard rock motions.

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