There was a time when grunge was an indomitable empire. A musical transcendence that touched and shaped all corners of popular culture. For reason abound that empire crumbled quickly, vanishing within four years of its apex, the symbolic final nail coming in the form of Soundgarden’s dispersal following “Down On the Upside.” The Seattle scene fell silent and the embers went dead as they were either ignored, or worse mismanaged, by the bands that followed. Grunge went to seed, living on in memory and the shadow of Pearl Jam’s adaptive evolution into a popular, relevant rock band.
As fate would have it, Red Fang also comes out of the Pacific Northwest and they lead the vanguard of a small cadre of bands that have taken those seeds and carried them in careful hands. As they release their third record “Whales and Leeches,” grunge fans can listen to Red Fang and perhaps come back into the sunlight just a little.
Make no mistakes, “Whales and Leeches” is not a straight grunge record – it is a hybrid strain of many styles, of which grunge happens to be one. The connection is strong though, and Red Fang shares more than geography with the deposed empire. As if to emphasize the point, the fuzz is turned up even higher, the bass driven deeper and the vocals scratchier, even with the juxtaposition of Yob’s Mike Scheidt for “Dawn Rising,” his guest vocals bordering on Cornell-facsimile territory.
What’s familiar with Red Fang for this effort is their continued embrace of all things muddy, earthy and woodsy. Deep tones permeate all of their music, and this record shows no deviation, as evidenced by the opening mossy thump of “DOEN.” As ever, everything Red Fang does is covered in primitive, distorted fuzz, a throwback to the sludge of the ‘90s, which in turn was a loving homage to the analog ‘70s. The only adaptation is that this is not a warm, welcoming glow, but a dire, fanged, physically imposing warning. The atmosphere of “Whales and Leeches” is not to be trifled with, as it shambles ahead with bad intentions.
It’s worth noting that Red Fang gives into their darker nature for this new record. “Murder the Mountains,” the grand statement that Red Fang released when last we heard then, was a possessed of a certain joviality, even within the greater, doom-and-gloom framework. For “Whales and Leeches,” any springiness is removed, replaced with a deeper winter. Even the vocals of Bryan Giles (not the guy that used to play for the Pirates) and Aaron Beam are altered, their guttural growls dominating tracks like “Blood Like Cream.” Red Fang seems to have absorbed some lessons from recent genre molders like Mastodon, which does make this new effort dourer and harder to process. There’s a pervasive sense that the band is working harder to understand these concepts they want to employ, which makes for a more workmanlike album that doesn’t come easy.
“Whales and Leeches” is a solid record that gets a little better with each successive listen. What’s uncertain is if it will live up to the accomplishment of “Murder the Mountains.” In the meantime, for those closely clutching long-ago-faded “Ultramega OK” or “Facelift” t-shirts, it may be safe to try and love again, so long as you’re careful.