In the long, winding story of heavy metal, one of the most under-appreciated chapters is that of American pioneers Trouble. The Chicago band was responsible not only for the rise and development of American doom metal, but three albums later also the development of groove and stoner metal. Their catalog is littered with classic records, and they boast what may be the least known, yet most deserving guitar tandem to ever turn up an amp. Why am I spending a few sentences on a band whose album I'm not reviewing? Because listening to “Residual Alcatraz”, the influence the legends have on this new band are immediate, inarguable, and a welcome change of pace.
Within a few seconds of the first chords of “Ride The Serpent” pouring out of the speakers, everything is clear. Dogbane is giving us an album of old-school heavy metal that is as concerned with songs as flashy riffs, all married to a crushing guitar tone that buries all in its path. When you think of traditional American heavy metal, this is the sound that should come to mind. There's nothing the least bit modern about the music on “Residual Alcatraz”, which may sound like a criticism, but it isn't. Modernity has robbed much of the scene of the things that made heavy metal what it was, and while Dogbane can't single-handedly resurrect what is likely dead and buried, it can remind us of the good old days.
“Born To Die” chugs along on heavy muted riffs before it expands in the back half to a melodic guitar dual, the kind of extended instrumental passage that actually adds to the song, rather than just show off for the sake of proving the player's chops. The understated riff that pops up at the end, for a fleeting second, is a wonderful touch that anchors the song before it can get out of hand. “Banished” boasts a main riff with all the swagger and attitude of classic Trouble, both heavier than anything tuned down to ungodly levels, and still catchy enough to be memorable. It seems like a simply thing, but few bands these days are able to combine heaviness with the ability to write real songs, something Dogbane does with ease.
“God Forgive You” powers through more riffs that sound as though stolen from the guitar gods, even tossing in a tremelo riff to vary the influences. The song is as close to catchy as anything on the album, boasting the simple yet effective chorus, “God forgive you, because I can't.” “Devil In The Dark” takes influence from Judas Priest, with it's twin-guitar main riff, sounding like if the British legends had started out life as a stoner band. It's an odd thought to have running through your mind, but the song isn't as mentally challenging as the image, fitting in with the more straight-forward songs without problem. Whereas “Burning In the Light” explores the band's doom influences, oddly giving the most melodic vocal on the album in the chorus.
If there is a weak link in Dogbane's metal assault, it is the vocals. Singer Jeff Neal's vocals lack the strength to fight through the wall of guitars. Doing so is a tall task, so his shortcomings are not a sign of failure. He does what he can with the music, but his place is not to soar over the music, it's to find his place amidst the groove and add what he can. The lockstep riffs that drill into the listener's metal heart are the star of the show, a never-ending wave of nostalgic metal bliss.
Bands like Dogbane, and albums like “Residual Alcatraz” are desperately needed, because they remind us of what we lose as we strive to push the boundaries of what heavy metal is. The ruthless pursuit of technical wizardry yields players who deserve the utmost respect, but it's the music that Dogbane makes that is what heavy metal is supposed to be. It doesn't advance the genre, but breaking new ground is often an excuse for lousy songwriting. Dogbane doesn't need to make excuses, they just make pure heavy metal that can't be argued with. And for those who appreciate the greatness of Trouble, this is as close as you can get. There's something to be said for that.