BONEHAWK Albino Rhino
(Ripple Music, 2014)
Is there really a better to way to discover new bands than with the live experience? Sure, in these 20-teen days we have every online avenue to hear new music, and with the thousands of great (and not-so-great) bands putting themselves out there, this constant deluge of musical choices can feel overwhelming. It can get to the point in which jaded, crusty heavy rockers like myself can feel content sitting at home and listening to the same old Priest, Saxon, and Thin Lizzy records over and over again. Thankfully, there is a fool-proof cure for these apathetic doldrums, and that is actually going out to shows and exposing yourself to new bands in their natural and LOUD environment.
That scenario led me directly to Bonehawk. Back in February, the 1970s-inspired four-piece heavy rock/metal band from Kalamazoo, Mich., was playing at Mulligan’s Pub in Grand Rapids with other local stalwarts Old Black and Knives Are Quiet. I had heard some heady buzz about Bonehawk prior to the show, but the band, who were playing last on the bill, blew me straight out of the stratosphere. These guys play bludgeoning, crushingly heavy rock/metal in the vein of early Sabbath, yet they also employ sublime, Thin Lizzy-esque guitar harmonies in nearly equal measure. But as brutal as some of their fuzzed-out, down-tuned riffs get, their grooves are as dynamic and bluesy as they are hypnotic. Plus, the vocals are clean and tuneful in a solid mid-range; a welcome change of pace from the hordes of screaming-and-yelling acts proliferating everywhere. Some would call this stoner rock or stoner doom, certainly, but I prefer to dub Bonehawk as classic, melodic metal that is as old-school as possible – ‘70s vintage.
I’ve seen Bonehawk perform twice more this year, and recently I finally got the opportunity to pick up their 2014 debut full-length, Albino Rhino. This unusual title evokes the sorts of eccentric, psychedelic imagery usually associated with the stoner heavy-rock scene. One could argue, though, that the highly-original title simply harkens back to the glorious era of ‘70s metal, when sub-genre labels were non-existent and individual creativity was unfettered. As with the title and artwork, the music contained on Albino Rhino works to capture the retro-yet-unique experience of Bonehawk’s live show. For the most part, the band has succeeded, and the album should help bring this fantastic band much greater exposure on the national scene.
The core of Bonehawk’s music is anchored by the muscular-sounding guitar tandem of Chad Houts and Matt Helt, whose fuzzed-out Les Pauls recall the sludgy tone of the first several Sabbath albums. Their fluid and tasty leads are fairly technical, but they are also melodic and drenched in bluesy soul (think of Cactus, just a little bit). The frequent guitar harmonies, likewise, are memorable and uplifting, especially for fellow Thin Lizzy fanatics. Albino Rhino also benefits from varied tempos, and unpredictable and engaging riffs; Chris Voss provides the rock-solid, and often, hypnotic and hallucinatory basslines. Remarkably, not only does Helt sing all the lead vocals, but he also recorded the drums. Their roster has since been completed by Jay Rylander on the (rhino) skins.
As for the song-writing itself, that’s where Albino Rhino truly shines. The album’s ten tracks are dynamic and infectious, rife with delicious hooks and irresistible melodies. "Argenia," the mid-tempo opener, deftly alternates between heavy, Sabbath-esque riffing and harmonized leads that could have been culled straight off Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous. Then comes "Sexy Beast," a nasty, sludgy piece of groovy doom that never lets its heaviness limit its harmonic capability. The bouncy groove and fuzz-driven leads of "Hot Mary" remind one again of Cactus (yes, a second Cactus reference on a metal site!), and perhaps even some Jimi Hendrix or Lenny Kravitz. As good as these songs are, Bonehawk brings out the heavy artillery (and cowbell) for the driving and exhilarating "Tonight We Ride." "Warchild" features more bruising riffs that seamlessly blend Sabbath and Lizzy, but Voss' hypnotic bassline and Helt’s supple vocals steal the show. "Desert Run" is one of Albino Rhino’s heaviest songs and my favorite; the contrast between the mellow clean chords in the verses and crushing blast of HEAVY in the chorus make this a live gem. The chipper blues of "Nomad," along with the deliberate and jammy title instrumental are other clear highlights.
If one could offer some constructive criticism for Bonehawk, it would be the album’s sound. While the production job is not bad, by any means, it does lack the awe-inspiring power of the band’s live shows. The drums are too far behind in the mix, and Helt’s vocal lines would be more effective further up front. I imagine the band was going for a rawer, more retro-sounding production, but perhaps they could slightly raise the overall volume levels in the mastering of their next release.
That said, Albino Rhino is a remarkable debut album for the local West Michigan heroes. Fans of stoner doom and any of the ‘70s giants would be remiss not to give Bonehawk a long listen.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot