Album Title: Warpaint
Label: Independent Release
Date of Release: 17 March 2017
The heavy metal underground. Is there a better place? I’m being serious here, because as I see it, some of the very best music being created can be found lurking in the underbelly of this fine genre. Sure there are the bigger hitters that keep producing fantastic albums and they deserve the plaudits. However, there’s something even more special about those bands that beaver away under the radar of the masses and then release quality material. Enter Vangough.
Vangough is the Oklahoma-based progressive creation of a highly talented chap by the name of Clay Withrow. This name might be familiar to some as he stepped in to assist Pain Of Salvation on tour when Daniel Gildenlow was in a bad way with his health a couple of years ago. The guitarist and vocalist released a solo album in 2008 (‘Dissonance Rising’) but formed Vangough soon after as he hankered after something more band-oriented. I somehow got wind of the 2009 Vangough debut, ‘Manikin Parade’ and fell for its charms in a big way. Here was a trio comprised of Withrow alongside bassist Jeren Martin and drummer Kyle Haws that threatened much and, I was convinced, should have a bright future ahead.
The following two albums maintained the quality, but for some reason, didn’t click so hard with me. Nevertheless, the name Vangough remained of interest and so when I realised that a fourth album was on the horizon, I had to investigate. As it turns out, ‘Warpaint’ is very much the album that I hoped I’d hear from Vangough and, as such, puts them firmly back on my radar. I hope too, that ‘Warpaint’ will ensure that the name Vangough now appears on significantly more progressive metal fans’ radars, because it fully deserves to.
I will admit to struggling with this review. Not in terms of my conclusions, for these began to form with some clarity very quickly. The difficulty I had here and still have to a certain extent, is being able to accurately and helpfully describe the music of Vangough for it is highly involved. It might not be the most overtly flamboyant and virtuosic music you’ll ever hear; if you’re looking for extended sections of instrumental gymnastics, you’ll want to move on. Even on the lengthy closer, ‘Black Rabbit’, where there is plenty of space for instrumental expression, the end result doesn’t feel over-indulgent or overblown. Rather, it just perfectly fits with the album as a whole.
That’s not to say though that Vangough are not accomplished musicians or lacking in ambition, far from it. There is no confusing ‘Warpaint’ as anything other than a progressive metal album. Each member of the trio and associated guests who assist in fleshing this album out are of the highest calibre and deliver their technical and subtly complex parts with assuredness and plenty of confidence. And yes, this does shine through as the music unfolds.
However, rather than their individual performances taking centre stage, the compositions themselves clearly come first. The Vangough sound on ‘Warpaint’ is therefore quite dramatic and dynamic, with a focus on producing music that is strong and powerful but also quite fragile and human-sounding. Atmospheres and emotions are explored to great effect and there’s also a subtleness to the compositions that creates longevity, allowing the music to keep giving long after the initial impact has been made.
‘Warpaint’ opens up in moody fashion courtesy of ‘Morphine’ which immediately captures my imagination. The riffs are huge, the bass rumbles ominously and the drums pound with power and panache. The pace is initially slow and ponderous, but gradually increases to heighten the tension within what is a dark and claustrophobic beast that ebbs and flows wonderfully. The vocals of Withrow start off in quiet introspective fashion but become more urgent and fuelled by anger and frustration as things develop, punctuated by a few guttural growls along the way. I get hints of Pain of Salvation but equally, I hear artists like Devon Graves’ Dead Soul Tribe within this impressive opener which ultimately dances to its own original tune and becomes rather addictive in the process.
By contrast, ‘Dust’ is a much punchier, to-the-point track where the melodies are slightly more immediate and pronounced. If Vangough released a single, this would probably be it.
‘The Suffering’ comes out of the blocks kicking and screaming, driven by a high-tempo rhythm-section that morphs into a dampened djent-inspired chugging, churning riff with an off-kilter time signature. The heaviness drops away momentarily to be replaced by a really rich acoustic guitar and vocal section before returning with real urgency and style, complete with a well-placed wailing guitar solo that doesn’t outstay its welcome. What I like most are the extreme contrasts that litter this track. One minute it is quiet and tentative, the next, it explodes with fury and barely-controlled rage, all the while keeping one eye on what makes enjoyable music, as the final epic and utterly compelling final act demonstrates. The guitar sings and the melodies really come to the fore, making this one of my firm favourites.
The almost thrashy overtones of ‘Gravity’ do not go unnoticed, underlining the ambition evident on ‘Warpaint’. Again, the contrasts within the song create drama and pull the listener into the music, forcing them to live the emotions rather than simply listen to them. It is another brooding monster, full of hugely impressive but understated instrumental prowess. It fleetingly reminds me of Haken in terms of the background sounds that add to an already multi-layered affair, serving to increase the strong atmospheres that permeate Vangough’s output.
‘Til Nothing’s Left’ is a song of two halves. The first produces a nice blend of bouncier, vaguely up-beat material, juxtaposed by slower, more tentative and moody passages. However, as the composition develops, it changes tack, to introduce a much more pronounced melodic refrain, which builds in intensity. The sumptuousness of the melody, alongside the dark subject matter and more gorgeous lead guitar work strikes a chord with me. Underpinned by more superlative rhythm work, it fades out having made its indelible mark, begging repeated listens. Who am I to refuse?
Echoes of Leprous confront me as ‘Knell’ introduces itself as the penultimate track. If the preceding material could be classed as moody or dark, this piece of music ratchets things up yet another notch. It is minimalist at the beginning with Withrow’s vocals taking centre stage. Synths then play arguably their most important role anywhere on ‘Warpaint’ as they provide an atmospheric and all-encompassing backdrop to the other instruments which themselves slowly build the intensity whilst remaining as sharp and precise as ever.
It is then up to the aforementioned ‘ Black Rabbit’ to close out ‘Warpaint’, doing so in grandiose fashion, stretching over eleven minutes, effectively summing up everything that is great about ‘Warpaint’ in the process.
The more I played ‘Warpaint’, the more I felt I had to keep checking that this is indeed an independent release. It is and, given the quality of the music on offer here, that’s quite extraordinary. This is as good as any other progressive metal release this year so far and even at this early stage, I am confident that it will take something quite special to upstage it. ‘Warpaint’ very much has its own identity but if you are a fan of the likes of Leprous, Pain Of Salvation or quality progressive metal in general, then Vangough’s latest effort has to be checked out. This is essential listening, trust me on that.
The Score of Much Metal: 9.0
If you’ve enjoyed this review, check out my others from previous years and for 2017 right here:
Telepathy – Tempest
Obituary – Obituary
Fen – Winter
Havok – Conformicide
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys
Svart Crown – Abreaction
Nova Collective – The Further Side
Immolation – Atonement
The Mute Gods – Tardigrades Will Inherit The Earth
Ex Deo – The Immortal Wars
Pyogenesis – A Kingdom To Disappear
My Soliloquy – Engines of Gravity
Nailed To Obscurity – King Delusion
Helion Prime – Helion Prime
Battle Beast – Bringer Of Pain
Persefone – Aathma
Soen – Lykaia
Exquirla – Para Quienes Aun Viven
Odd Logic – Effigy
Mors Principium Est – Embers Of A Dying World
Firewind – Immortals
Slyde – Back Again EP
Sepultura – Machine Messiah
Deserted Fear – Dead Shores Rising
Kreator – Gods Of Violence
Borealis – World of Silence MMXVII
Pain of Salvation – In The Passing Light of Day