I will be the first to admit I’m a hippie at heart, and the Lady will be all too quick to back me up on this. This is not to say that I need her word to confirm my hippie status, I have spent the majority of my forty plus years in the heart of the hippie culture, San Francisco, and have over thirty Grateful Dead shows to my resume. Anything even remotely hippie has always had some sort of appeal to me, so when Spiritual Beggars’ latest album, Earth Blues came up for review, I jumped at the chance to revisit those psychedelic waters once again. This time though, it would be via the genre of stoner metal.
Now, having spent the last decade immersed for the most part in the prog rock/metal scene, I have missed the majority of the stoner metal movement, and was more than overjoyed to have some of those old seventies vibes awakened by what it entailed, but with this release from Spiritual Beggars, there is so much more. As for the band themselves, they boast quite a list of top notch players. Spiritual Beggars was started in 1993 by guitarist Michael Amott (also founder of the melodic death metal band Arch Angel). He is joined by Ludwig Witt on drums, Apollo Papathanasio(Time Requiem, Firewind, Evil Masquerade) on vocals, Per Wiberg(Opeth, Arch Enemy) on keyboards, and Sharlee D’Angelo(Arch Enemy, Merciful Fate, King Diamond) on bass. Beginning to end, no matter what label or genre you try to put on this release, in the end it is simply a kick ass rock album.
The album jumps to a quick and decisive start. I guarantee anyone that within one minute of listening to the opening track, Wise as a Serpent, they will know if this band is for them. With the combination of the bass heavy rhythm section and the distinctive keys, it’s a sound that has a specific audience. Count me as a very satisfied member of that audience. For comparison, I really need to go back to the seventies and all the harder rock that emerged from the counterculture movement, bands like Mountain and Grand Funk Railroad were the first to come to mind when I got my first taste of these guys. But they aren’t just reliving an old style, they are making it their own. Throughout their near twenty years of existence, they have had more than enough time to perfect their sound. Flowing into the second song, Turn the Tide, the beat is infectious. I dare someone who labels themselves a rocker not to headbang gratuitously in public to this song, and to the album in general. It’s a fucking fun piece of music, not much more needs to be said about it.
Sweet Magic Pain has a much bluesier vibe to it, with an exploding chorus that ensures you won’t be dozing off. Apollo Papathanasio’s vocal performance on this album is nothing short of spectacular. Lows, highs, screams, emotions, he nails them all. He provided me with a real WTF moment in Hello Sorrow. As the vocals of that song kicked in, I literally took my player out of my pocket to see how I had managed to switch to a Thin Lizzy song I didn’t know. His low end vocals here are the scariest channeling of Phil Lynott I have ever heard. Once he kicks it into gear, he steps out of Phil zone, but the likeness was uncanny, and fit the song perfectly.
As you would expect of this group of musicians, the instrumentation is rock solid beginning to end. Flare is where it needs to be, and structure is too. Too Old to Die Young really showcases all the various sides of the band. The adaptability of the rhythm section to control the pace, and set change in motion without flaw. The keyboards wonderful added atmosphere, accenting where necessary, driving where needed. The guitars, so solid and emotional, never drowning out the rest of the band, but always in control of the vibe of the song. And of course the vocals, giving just that added bit of hell yeah that really puts their style over the edge.
In the end, I will state again that this is a distinct sound. If it hits you, it will keep hitting you. If it doesn’t, well there is an endless well of music to draw from. There isn’t a ton of variety to their sound, it is that funky, hippie metal from beginning to end, and I’m totally cool with that. I can say with a good deal of surety that stoner metal, your fandom has increased by one.