I generally don’t write much about sludge bands, probably because I don’t listen to all that many of them. Of all the various sub-genres of metal, it’s probably the hardest to do well. In fact, most of the sludge bands I do listen to are the ones who spike their sound with other elements: the pop sensibilities of Torche, the progressive leanings of early Mastodon, the classic/southern rock tendencies of Baroness. Curiously named Salt Lake City trio The Ditch and The Delta’s musical approach on their debut full-length Hives in Decline can be plotted somewhere along the Torche/Mastodon/Baroness axis, but there’s also a pronounced jazz influence at work that occasionally has them sounding a bit like a math-rock version of Neurosis. This isn’t a band that’s afraid to take risks in their songwriting, and the vast majority of them pay off.
After about ninety seconds of ambient drone, the album proper kicks off with one of the sickest riffs on the entire record in “Hives in Decline,” a slithering, modal-sounding progression that’s made even more effective by the tom work behind it. In some ways, the drum work reminds me of what J Mascis was doing on Dinosaur Jr’s Green Mind, where the drum pattern followed what he was doing on guitar instead of simply carrying the beat. It kind of runs counter to the role that drums traditional play in rock music, and I expect the guitarist and drummer need to really be lock in to be able to pull it off (Mascis pretty much played all the instruments on Green Mind, so he kind of cheated in that regard), but it sounds really fucking cool when it’s done right. “Fuck on Asphalt,” which features lead guitar work from Eagle Twin’s Gentry Densley, might be the album’ strongest track, kicking of with a swinging riff that reminds me a bit of Horseburner before taking an almost psychedelic turn about halfway through. The brief instrumental track “Dry Land” sounds almost equal parts swampy southern rock and spaced-out jazzy, which I didn’t even think was possible.
If I have a complaint with the record, I think it’s a bit frontloaded. Penultimate track “Mud” is one of the stronger tracks on the album and definitely has some of the most effectively exploratory guitar work, but the tracks that bookend it—“Till Body Quits” and “Dread Spectacle”—both feel overly long, which is odd since neither of them break the five-and-a-half minute mark. Closing track “Dread Spectacle” is probably the only instance on the album where they take a risk that doesn’t pay off; about ninety seconds in there’s a stretch of mellow, jazzy guitar and Neurosis-esque clean vocals that are probably meant to up the song’s tension but instead kills its momentum, and the track never quite recovers. Perhaps if it weren’t the only really noticeable stretch of clean vocals on the record it would have been more effective, but given how effective most of the other chances they took ended up being, it’s hard to fault the band too much for one misstep.
All in all, this record is a hella groovy riff-fest that should appeal both to fans of the more melodic end of the stoner/sludge/doom spectrum and to those who like their metal to lean a little more towards the progressive side. Hopefully their touring plans will bring them somewhere near Indiana, because I’d love to hear how these songs translate live.
Hives in Decline will be available on May 12 via Battleground Records.