Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Stoner Rock Mysteries: Shrinebuilder

As regular readers of this blog are aware, your humble author is quite taken with a genre commonly referred to as "stoner rock," something of catchall term that includes styles such as doom, sludge and drone metal, desert and retro rock, post-metal, occult rock, heavy psych and so on. This genre has shown itself to be especially synchro-mystical, what with its allusions to metaphysics, mythology, entheogens and litanies of pop culture references to sci-fi, fantasy and horror. For a more in depth discussion on these points, check here.

The band for consideration in this discussion is very much a part of the stoner rock universe, effectively constituting a kind of super group (or at least as super as a group can be comprised of largely underground musicians). While so much of mainline heavy rock was bogged down with teenage mopping and faux Satanism for the past few decades, the artists who comprise Shrinebuilder were busy exploring a host of sophisticated esoteric topics in the same time frame. They include:

Guitarist/vocalist Scott Kelly of Neurosis...

Guitarist/vocalist Scott "Wino" Weinrich of doom pioneers Saint Vitus as well as the numerous "Wino bands" (the Obsessed, Spirit Caravan, the Hidden Hand and Premonition 13)...

Bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros of Sleep and Om...

And drummer/some time vocalist Dale Crover of the Melvins (and parts of Nirvana's Bleach album).

from left to right: Cisneros, Wino, Kelly and Crover
Regular readers of this blog should recognize a few familiar names above. Neurosis' mind-bending and highly influential catalog was already considered at length before here while a run down of the Wino bands can be found here. Most recently I considered Cisneros' work with Sleep and Om. So, tackling Shrinebuilder at this point is a natural progression.

The band originates from some time in the early 2000s, just as Al Cisneros was beginning to get back into music after an extended layoff spanning from the late 90s into the early part of the next decade. Originally Shrinebuilder was conceived of as a power trio with Cisneros, original Sleep and Om drummer Chris Hakius and Wino on guitar and vocals. Apparently the group's name derived from an Om song called "Rays of the Sun/To the Shrinebuilder" that was released as a split with Current 93 on Kelly's Neurot label in 2006. At some point in the middle of the decade Cisneros approached Kelly about signing on. Then, just as the group was set to begin writing in earnest, Hakius retired from music. Thus, the way was paved for the Dale Crover to step in as the group's drummer shortly before they began recording their debut album.

Unsurprisingly, Cisneros was the guiding visionary of the band. His metaphysical bent is evident across the board, but especially in the group's lyrics (reportedly Cisneros and Kelly, who also regularly deals with esoteric themes, wrote the bulk of the lyrics on the debut). However, Cisneros largely shunned the spotlight over the course of the group's self-titled debut: His lead vocals are limited to album's second and fifth tracks while his bass only occasionally rises above Wino and Kelly's monolithic guitars (excluding "Blind For All to See," the one really bass driven track on this album).

This left plenty of room for the other band members to put their own signatures onto the group's debut (and likely only) studio album. While Kelly doesn't seem to have contributed much musically, his vocals grace every song on the album and his trademark bludgeoning riffs are ever present. Wino seems to have written a fair amount of the music, including the oh-so Om-like "Pyramids of the Moon", as well as contributing heavily to the "Architect" and "The Science of Anger". He also splits lead vocals with Kelly on the latter to two tracks, as well as opener "Solar Benediction," and contributed much of the lead guitar (at least as far as this researcher can tell). Crover was a late addition, but his trademark polyrhythmic drumming is present throughout and his chant-like backup vocals (often in conjunction with Cisneros') provide an exotic layer to the proceedings

The final lineup had yet to play with one another until literally the night before the group was set to enter the studio to record the self-titled debut. At the onset of the recording sessions the group only had vague outlines of most songs and used the previous night's rehearsal to begin constructing song structures in earnest. This, combined with the general failings of super groups, would spell disaster for most records. Everything about the album seemed to cry out "Rush job!"

And yet it worked. Certainly few who listened to Shrinebuilder for the first time were blown away by the album as they likely were by records released by the outfits whom provided the nucleus of the band. Indeed, many listeners seem to have found the album rather underwhelming: while Shrinebuilder had certainly avoided embarrassing themselves, there was nothing especially groundbreaking to the album. Each member stuck within their respective comfort zone and the sound that emerged reflected each aspect of the contributors without altering anyone's signature sound.

the much anticipated debut album
So, novelty was not much a factor in the success of Shrinebuilder other than the obvious novelty of this particular lineup playing together. But while the album offered up nothing especially new, it showcased four of the best musicians in their respective genres at the top of their craft. While these songs may not grab one by the ear right off the bat, repeated listening reveal a strong batch of epic-length songs with any number of subtle layers surrounding them.

Note, for instance, the gorgeous acoustic picking (courtesy of Wino) that appears during the final minutes of "Solar Benediction" or the otherworldly chants that appear midway through "Pyramid of the Moon." These are the types of little details that help push these songs over the top while also illustrating to total mastery of their respective crafts these four musicians possessed at the time this album was recorded. But moving along.

The album opens with "Solar Benediction," a track largely composed by Cisneros and which appears to be one of the earliest Shrinebuilder songs. Driven by a lumbering groove the invokes Sleep, Om and Neurosis in equal measures, Wino and Kelly trade verses in striking contrast before the song settles into a tranquil instrumental section. The track details a journey through initiation, a theme many of the musicians of Shrinebuilder have addressed at length before. Specifically, the song proclaims a journey of the soul spanning "Jericho onward through wailing gods and barren scapes of flesh." This echoes the Gnostic disillusionment with both the flesh as well the illusionary nature of the world.

From here comes "Pyramid of the Moon," the group's first single. The song opens with a deliberate groove over which Wino and Kelly layer various effects-laden guitars. The song slowly builds, and is especially punctuated during its midsection by the chant-like backing vocals of Cisneros and Crover. The last section of the song is possibly the most Om-like moment on the album, and it is fitting that Cisneros takes the mic for the album's climatic groove.

The song title of course evokes numerous conspiracy theories concerning bases on the moon and certainly the song's chief songwriter, Wino, has a penchant for the sort of thing. But the lyrics were primarily the work of Kelly on this track and he shuns ancient astronaut musings. Instead, the song becomes a kind of ode to the destruction humanity has wrought upon the Earth in its quest to reach the stars. Dryly Kelly intones: "The walls of crows spread seed/To the earth for our feast of withering souls and reason/ We turn to the moon/ Sets upon sea of light."

At this point Cisneros takes up the vocals and offers some musings about "Ascend freedom/Transference/Fuse the watcher at Jericho" and so forth. But in the context of the song, this transference rings hollow. I suppose this warranted the inclusion of Jericho. But moving along.

the legendary city of Jericho is referenced twice on Shrinebuilder
Track three, "Blind for All to See," is the most mellow and atmospheric song on the album. The track is driven by a rolling Cisneros bass line over which Kelly and Wino subtly layer trippy leads. Lyrically this track seems to deal with the suffocating militarism in American society and the spiritual waste land it has left in its wake. Kelly sneers "They're leading on to the warship plane/On to the light/ Give us solitude/Give us in the reign/Watch the bow reach/ To the glowing gods/Through the astral plane/Blind for all to see." Perhaps then as technology becomes interchangeable from magic, it threatens to totally consume the gods and all planes as well?

Next comes "The Architect," one of the most compelling songs on the album. The song title of course echoes the Masonic notion of God as "the Great Architect" and is also consistent with the stone mason imagery evoked by the name Shrinebuilder itself. This was another Wino-lead song and is the closet the album comes to sounding like one of the Wino bands. It also takes up the theme of initiation first introduced in "Solar Benediction." Over a dragging groove Wino opens up the song moaning "From labyrinthine dream be released/Apprehends state, form, and time/Rise Farid."

"Farid" is likely a reference to the Persian Sufi poet Abū Ḥamīd bin Abū Bakr Ibrāhīm, better known by his pen name of Farīd ud-Dīn. Farid's most well known work is called The Conference of the Birds. Cisneros named the second Om album after this work and has made reference to it at times.

Farid ud-Din
From here the song goes on to the path the initiate seeks so as to escape the Demiurgic world, Wino stating: "The astral field's perceived/And permutations feed/The Initiate set free/The rising entropy/That wields the freeing blade/And asks of Mercury... /When is the waking hour?" Mercury is of course the god of magic and was especially revered within the Mysteries in his Greek form of Hermes. After a few more "when is the waking hours?" it fades out into an effects-laden bass solo that would do Geezer Butler himself proud.

The album closes with "The Science of Anger", another Wino track. Apparently this song was partly inspired by Wino's then-failing marriage (he was divorced shortly thereafter) but part of the lyrics were provided by Kelly. The song seems to become an ode to how a poisonous relationship can derail the spiritual path one has set out upon.

Or at least this is my interpretation of the lines that come after the more personal opening verse: "Psyche binds to the golden host/Exhortations O Solaris/The heirophant rite begins/Translucent jewel of Osiric line/Distant tide surging through my soul/Stirring the blood of my fathers pain." A heirophant was a priest in ancient Greece charged with interpreting sacred mysteries (in Attica this was the title of the chief priest of the Eleusinian Mysteries) while the Egyptian god Osiris had his own highly popular Mystery School in the ancient world. Thus, this would seem to indicate the narrator is back on the path of initiation.

Fittingly, the song and the album itself ends with another Cisneros dominated-section with chant-like backing vocals. As though rising above some warped monestary, Cisneros concludes the album by observing "For warmth I'm yearning/The destroyer's touch/Blackout til dawn/Absolution/Toward the sun I send/Purified and wash errant perception." And indeed, one certainly feels purified by album's end.

And so concludes Shrinebuilder's debut and essentially the band's brief run. The debut was released in late 2009 and after playing sporadic shows in 2010 and 2011 the group went on hiatus. With the busy schedules of all four members, fans assumed this was merely a break so that the various members could refocus on their main groups before a sequel was forth coming. But by 2012 uncertainty began to emerge as to the future of Shrinebuilder. Then in 2014 Wino seemingly announced the death of the band when he stated during an interview; "...Cisneros is insane so Shrinebuilder is not going to happen..."

Thus, the band ends as mysteriously as it began. After years of rumblings in the underground of its existence the group briefly emerged like some mythological creature of old, performed wonders and then disappeared back into the ether under a cloak of even more mystery. I suppose this is as fitting a conclusion as such a group could hope for. And with that I shall wrap things up for now. Until next time dear reader.

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