Monday, September 24, 2012

Norska - Norska EP (2011)

This is the self-titled debut of Portland, Oregon based Norska, featuring Aaron of YOB, who provide odd, reverberating, tumultuous landscapes of sound, rooted in the formative aesthetics of doom and sludge. This is technically an EP, at 5 tracks, though it’s 40 minutes long, so it really feels like a full-length. One can see immediate parallels to more well-known acts like Electric Wizard, Baroness, and especially High on Fire, though to Norska’s credit, they do not feel like they pull too much from any one source. The way the compositions lumber along, with lots of crushing, dynamic interplay between the music and the leads, even feels spiritually reminiscent of Cascadian metal at times, circa Wolves of the Throne Room. Not in any compositional way, but in the nature of the imagery imparted, like the wild edge of untamed nature. The difference is, while Wolves would be a waterfall, Norska would be a hostile desert canyon. Certainly, the production here is very earthy and natural, a tone befitting the music in question. I think just a bit more punch and crunch would have done wonders, but it’s nevertheless effective, with riffs like waves of molasses washing over you.

The five tracks here are pretty varied, without betraying the cold, desert aura the band immediately establish. Opener Amnesia is perhaps the most direct number, with a faster pace and a number of riffs to choose from, and feels redolent of earlier Mastodon material. Nobody One Knows also churns with an inner violence, but it gets more psychedelic halfway through, with a sweet haunted dissonance overlaying the bouncy, wavering grooves. They Mostly Came at Night is a true epic, slowly building into roiling waves, and encapsulates all the myriad emotions scattered across the record. Cholera has a very dark atmosphere, feeling strikingly akin to the crawling, oceanic doom of Ahab, and the closer, Two Coins for the Ferryman, another lengthy track featuring a crazed vocal performance, turns from a breeze to a gale as it picks up pace and intensity, before dropping you unceremoniously at records end.

What I enjoy most about Norska is a bit intangible, a sense of grandiosity and scope that belies the often simple, pulsing nature of the notation. It’s more poignant than the sum of its parts, a quality I attribute to both the fantastic, spirit-scraping leads, and just how well these musicians complement each other. Whether they’re slowly chugging along, laying grooves heavy enough to cripple mountains, or relaxing in a psychoactive bog of slow, dense atmosphere, the music here is pretty universally compelling. Only the rare moment had me crying out in amazement, sure, but the fact that it did so at all is awesome, and this is as fine a slab of panoramic sludge as I've ever heard, subtly integrating the bellowing weight of funeral doom. The riffing is mostly slow and choppy, with the strained, maniacal vocals of Jim Lowder peaking out from distant valleys, echoing across the landscape like haunted cries. I like this effect, as it adds even more to the prevalent looming storm clouds of inherent atmosphere.

An appreciable level of feeling went into this recording, and this more so than any planned formula or musical trickery is what will draw people to it. However, you’re going to want to count patience as one of your virtues, if this album is a plunge you’d like to take. That’s not a knock against the record, it’s just a fact. Some sections stretch on quite far into the distance, a cyclical twanging rolling through a vast desert, and it will take a good bit of concentration to reap the maximum benefit, though I find it quite nice as background music as well, perhaps for some epic video game, or even just doing chores. Norska is oddly relaxing to me, even though they succeed by building and releasing a lot of compositional tension.

Sludge is not my forte’, I will readily admit. My knowledge is pretty limited to the bigger names, and I heartily enjoy Mastodon, High on Fire, Baroness, Bison BC, and a handful of others. I’m happy to say I now count Norska among them. They’re not at the top of this list, but this is also their first effort, so for now, the sky’s the limit. They also feel appreciably different than any other band I’m familiar with, which is always a plus. However, though they’re capable of beauty, I can’t say Norska has moved me to tears. A select few of the riffing patterns start to wear on my patience after awhile, and once again, I’d like the production to be just a bit more crunchy in the low end, but it's by no means flawed, and they show a lot of heart and the chops to translate it.

Whatever miniscule gripes I may have, however, I truly cannot see any fan of sludge or doom being anything less than satisfied with this, and so I fully recommend it, with the advice that you give it your full attention span, and let the dry, crushingly vast mental imagery wash over you. It’s certainly unique enough to remain in my playlist for at least a good while to come, and I’m pretty excited to see where they go from here. This is a strong, passionate debut, and even though it’s come just short of setting my spirit aflame, hopefully it’s a statement that when it’s time for a full-length, we’ll all be crushed into powder.

8 / 10 - Pendulous Pounding and Dry Desert Winds