Red Fang, Only Ghosts
Red Fang are a conundrum of a band, one that I love for seemingly totally diametrically opposed reasons. On the one hand, I love their over-the-top, raw, heavy-as-fuck, metal sensibilities, the kind that write songs to make you punch the roof of your beat-to-shit old car as you blaze down the road home from your dead-end job, happy to be out of there for another day, at least.
On the other hand, though, they’re smarter than that, and deviously so. Along with the woo-party-down, metal-horns rockers, Red Fang also craft songs that are more complex and thoughtful, veering closer to folks like Mastodon or In Flames more than anything else. Heck, even on the seemingly goofier tracks, they gleefully poke fun at themselves and the metal scene in general (especially in their videos), showing a degree of self-awareness that’s pretty damn impressive for any band, much less one that relies on thundering guitars and bellowed/howled vocals to get its point across.
That self-awareness, actually, has had at least one metalhead friend of mine on the fence about these guys — his fear is (was?) that Red Fang were just a bunch of too-ironic Portland hipsters playing at being hard-drinking, distortion-loving metal dudes; that the band was wearing, um, “metalface,” as it were. I mean, if that were going to happen somewhere…
Honestly, though? I don’t think so. These guys play heavy, sludgy, loud, stoner-ish metal/rock like there’s nothing else in the world they’d rather be doing. It’s just that, again, they’re smart, and they’re working hard to make music that isn’t just more graaawwr–graaawwr metal-by-numbers. And from that standpoint, Only Ghosts represents a great step forward for the band.
Don’t get me wrong — I liked 2011’s Murder the Mountains quite a bit, and enjoyed what I heard off of 2013’s Whales and Leeches. Only Ghosts, though, takes the prog elements and experimentation of both those albums and merges them back into the fury and fire from the band’s epic self-titled debut. Beyond that, this album brings in a lot more of a psych-rock feel than the band’s previous stuff, and an almost classic-rock sound that I really thought I wouldn’t like as much as I do.
Opener “Flies” is seriously bassy and heavy, making me think a lot of that aforementioned first album in all its sludgy, raw-throated glory. Lead single “Shadows,” too, points backwards to early hit “Prehistoric Dog,” with its thundering sound and roared “Can’t tame this!” chorus. Even then, though, the song has these nice little atonal shards of guitar sticking out of the sides, a jagged-sounding touch that updates things and brings ’em forward.
On the other side, “Cut It Short” is cleaner and more straight-up “rock,” albeit with some intriguingly odd time signatures and stutter-stop shifts. “Not For You” comes off like a lost Foo Fighters song, if Dave Grohl were somehow more of a misanthrope than he already seems to be.
Then there’s “No Air,” which makes me think of Houston’s Knights of the Fire Kingdom, actually, or maybe fellow Northwesterners Federation X (whom any Red Fang fan should check out, by the by). It’s snarling and slow-stomping, deliberate in a way that’s almost more threatening than a full-on blast might be. Again, there’s a Foo Fighters influence going on, and even a bit of a resemblance to Queens of the Stone Age — or, hell, Kyuss, even.
“The Deep” is complex and furious, with an appropriately aquatic, turbulent feel to it, and “I Am a Ghost” is appropriately murky and grim, with shredded-throat vocals. Closing track “Living in Lye” shifts further towards the old-school, with a classic Sabbath-y groove and some serious psych-rock elements lurking in the background.
My favorite track, though, is probably the strangest on here — other than the moody, menacing interlude of “Flames,” at least. “The Smell of the Sound” may have a title that makes zero sense, but it’s fucking great nonetheless. It starts off with nothing but ultra-low, distorted, yet still somehow melodic bass, and if you squint, it sounds like nothing more than the main bass figure of Portishead’s “Wandering Star” (that’s a positive thing).
The track is slow-moving and thoughtful, almost mythic and Mastodon-esque in its scope; it’s here where Red Fang shows that, sure, they can rock the hell out in a tornado of half-empty beer cans…they just don’t always need to. And that, my friends, is the mark of a band that knows what the fuck it’s doing.