Certain things, when you read them, are bounds for concern. When the press release for Bovine's new album called the music "sludge-soaked ghetto [rock]", I must admit that I was not exactly thrilled by what my mind was conjuring up. Sludge all too rarely manages to show the refinement in songwriting I expect from the music I listen to, and I have no idea what ghetto rock is supposed to be, but it sounds unpleasant as well. Combining the two of them seems like a recipe for creating something I'm sure to hate, but while that old cliche about not judging a book by its cover isn't always true, it would be a dereliction of duty if I didn't see for myself if my expectations were wrong.
While the sun may never set on the British Empire, as the album says, the record almost sound like music will never start either. The introductory piece is a minute and change of ambient swells, the type of thing I would surmise was put in place to help pad out the length of the record, because it makes no tangible contribution to the rest of the record. "Ghost Chair" kicks off the proper songs, sounding not unlike bands like Baroness and Mastodon, who have managed to escape the label of being merely sludge bands.
Captured in Bovine's sound is the spirit of something bigger than the label they have attached to the music. It's not content to merely wade through the downbeat, ugly sounds that require little in the way of finesse to play. Bovine takes their songcraft more seriously than bands you can only imagine playing music in a haze of weed smoke, even separating themselves with a guitar tone that is fuzzed out classic rock, not the soupy quagmire often used to artificially boost the heaviness quotient. Something about that sound is more appealing than it sounds when written down.
"Thank Fuck I Ain't You" is a sludgy take on prog, featuring a few riffs that could have been lifted off any recent prog rock album, buoying a chorus that, while buried in the mix, ties the song together as more than a mere collection of riffs. That charge could more accurately be leveled at "Heroes Are What", a song that throws acoustic guitars, doom, and classic rock riffs all into the pot. The song rarely sits still long enough for it to define a direction, which may just be the best choice it could have made.
There's a limited palate of sounds and moods this type of music can handle, but little things like the Thin Lizzy-esque guitar lead at the beginning of "Military Wife" are the kind of little details that make all the difference. Adding just that little bit of melody before the riffs come in to barnstorm your ears again is a nifty trick of songwriting.
The one issue I would take with the record is the production, which buries the vocals too far back in the mix. This is not a vocal heavy style of music, and I wouldn't expect them to dominate the proceedings, but they often get lost over the heavier passages, which dilutes the power of what are supposed to be half-screamed melodies. If that much vocal effort can't rise above the band, it gives the appearance of weakness. A minor point, but one I feel I needed to make.
"The Sun Never Sets On The British Empire" isn't my kind of record, nor is this kind of music in general the sort of thing I would seek out, but if I were in the mood to listen to some down and dirty heavy rock, Bovine is the sort of band I would gravitate to. They have a more nuanced approach to the music than most bands who trade in these sorts of sounds, and that lighter touch makes the record an enjoyable way to spend some time. The album won't be breaking through the way Mastodon's "Crack The Sky" did, but it has the same approach to sludge, the only one I think actually works.
I suppose my first impression was wrong.