The last couple of years have seemed like a long haul for Columbus, Ohio’s endlessly touring hard rockers Lo-Pan. My pal and the band’s longtime riff machine Brian Fristoe was a hard loss to swallow and his departure was the first time I doubted the boys’ decisions. Putting aside my own friendships with the group members (sorry it has been awhile brothers!), Lo-Pan’s most recent long player Colossus was a damn fine piece of work…a breezy, stomping ode to 70s riffs, classic hard rock anthems and barrages of uplifting attitude adjustment. It felt like the summit of their journey thus far. Afterwards, Fristoe’s absence left their future in doubt until he was replaced by Adrian Zambrano. Zambrano was out two years later, so Chris Thompson (Sleepers Awake, White Wolves) suited up for the empty axe position. The resulting EP with Thompson on deck, In Tensions, illustrates a band that isn’t about to let their momentum die on the vine.
These five tunes all told here are an excellent representation of Lo-Pan’s patented, ultra-melodic hard rock; accessible, hooky, rhythmically thick, admirably riffed and a sonic representation of ripples turning into waves. Opener “Go West” couples a fuzzy drooling groove riff to the hammering, tom-heavy backbeats of Jesse Bartz and the porno girth of Skot Thompson’s walking bass lines. High atop the peak of churning verses, power riffed bridges and infectious choruses, vocalist Jeff Martin’s trembling croon combines the lucid warning shots of Jonah Jenkins (Only Living Witness, Milligram, etc.), Jason Byers (Disengage) and Maynard James Keenan. Though he might be similar in expressiveness, Jeff is his own thing with his own special sauce as his lyrics paint vivid pictures of the landscape, travel, obtuse personal reflections and much more.
In fact the combination of vast, arid grooves, rubber torn rhythmic shocks and the spread wing vocals/words is a musical portrait of America’s open roads where you can practically smell the asphalt and taste the gasoline in the back of your throat. This is diesel and jet fuel in the same motor vehicle gas tank and the 2:00 minute mark offers up one of the band’s heaviest progressions since their second LP Sasquanaut. “Sink or Swim” is more succinct, allowing Chris to craft a riff spread on bread of chugging, slightly metallic grooves, bluesy stingers and more direct 70s rock shoves. Bartz is an underrated drummer, shining bright under a highway sky with economical snare fills, effortless tom-tom propulsion and slinky rolls as Skotty bounces off his every beat with driving fluidity. Jeff’s melodies carve a smile in the Appalachian mountainside and the overall feel is similar to Colossus’ lead-in trio of songs but with a touch more dirt under the fingernails.
A lumbering, drunk at noon bass riff kicks in “Long Live the King” with full-throttle action; the tone, ferocity and notation quite similar to the Queens of the Stone Age gem “Mexicola.” As a pure, unbridled throwback to earlier Lo-Pan outings, this one eschews some of the laidback flexibility for a knockdown dragout donnybrook of hefty riffage in similar fashion to Dozer or Only Living Witness circa Prone Mortal Form. Martin’s voice slithers over the proceedings with powerful memorability as the backbreaking drum n’ bass crunch and iron-handed riffs reckon of the quartet’s own extended length masterpieces “Wade Garrett” and “Solo.” Joe Viers’ recording and Jon Nunez’s mixing respectively grants this tune not only the best clarity heard on a Pan release yet but also their rawest n’ deadliest swing since the Sasquanaut daze. Changing gears completely “Alexis” drops a psychedelic clean guitar glisten as the vocals hit their highest melodic lofts. It’s a snug blanket of serenity soon shattered by a gorgeous 90s space-rock atomic bomb similar to Hum, Shiner, Floor (circa the Self-Titled) and Menthol.
Within the musical confines lurk some of the most unique textures in the entire Lo-Pan discography, easily one of their heaviest but most cerebral explorations of texture to date. They’ve got that Floridian bomb-string explosion happening all over the place, unique tone/tempo shake-ups akin to Downward is Heavenward that hint at progressive rock and there’s even an incendiary little guitar solo to gawk at (one of the few on the EP). The penultimate closing track “Pathfinder” furthers the expedition into the cosmic, psychedelic textures of the prior track but bends it with a stony, bluesy headswim of FX (wah, phase, flange) that calmly lulls you into a trance. Any feelings of transcendental peace are curb-stomped into broken tooth oblivion with the dominating, doom-inflected riff heard at the 1:42 mark. If we’re playing the genre game it’s probably “stoner” but it hits with the weight of Maryland and delivers a sonic kick in the balls like some blues-drenched, English-bred 70s proto-metal (or Ohio’s own old school legends Granicus).
Available as a CD or limited edition vinyl In Tensions contains a 100 page booklet featuring lyrics, tour journals and the killer artwork of Chris Smith (flyer designer extraordinaire and a featured artist behind album covers for Pittsburgh slicers Lycosa and Vulture), grab In Tensions while you can. It looks like an EP where length is concerned but it eats like an album and it’s easily my favorite Lo-Pan recording thus far.[Visit the band's website]