Horseskull
Chemical Winter Blues

Raleigh, North Carolina sludgy blues/doom overlords Horseskull immediately jumped on my radar for containing ¾ of the classic Soulpreacher line-up (Anthony Staton on guitar/vocals, Mike Avery on guitar/FX and Robb Hewlett on bass).  The Preacher’s mean, swingin’ riff gospel, tightly locked rhythm grooves and Anthony Staton’s scalding scream was a depraved pleasure on their Man’s Ruin debut Sonic Witchcraft and its even grimier, glue sniffin’ psyched-out brother the GameTwo Records’ follow-up When the Black Sunn Rises, the Holy Men BurnHorseskull reunited these Carolinian blood brothers with the heaving, skull plowing vitriol of 2014’s Self-Titled riff-fest; a modern sludge masterpiece besieged by rampaging, overdriven 70s riffs, skin clawing descents into depression doom and a filthy dose of crusty hardcore’s relentless “fuck yous.”  It’s been a 3 or so year wait for a follow-up and I’m happy to report that Chemical Winter Blues is everything it should be and then some.

Walls and waves of corrosive feedback crash into FX pedal/amp-drone static scuzz as opener “Black Dawn, Bright Day” slowly coalesces around an increasingly harrowing main riff.  Avery’s usage of fucked-up, organic white noise is reminiscent of Dave Chandler’s pioneering, brain-cell torching freakwork in St. Vitus.  Hewlett rifles off volleys of fluidly fatal, walking bass lines that shift like grains of sand to match the hallucinatory dual blues riffs and growling wah-licks.  The dirty dealing guitar team plays well off each other, constantly fluxing and adding little tricks to the timing and tempo of the song’s molten blues which should go down well for fans of louder than God dirt dealers Church of Misery, Greenmachine, Bongzilla and Cavity.  Mutant Sabbathisms run rampant and Staton’s clean vocals are at their most potent here.  He’s singing more than ever and his quavering, soulfully honest howl is somewhere between prime Ozzy and Rozz Williams’ insane melodic narrations on Christian Death’s untouchable Only Theatre of Pain (especially when Anthony’s laments pour atop the sleazing, slo-mo groove heard at 4:27).  His approach perfectly accompanies the scathing music and the powerful, focused singing only adds more impact to his lung-dragging, truly signature, mental ward screams that make a noticeable appearance in the tune’s second half.

“Hypocrites and Pigs” was an early favorite of mine from this record with a fuckin’ killer live video whetting the appetite, spliced n’ diced to perfection thanks to some bloody wartime visual clip insertions that gloriously bolster the track’s carnal sludge/blues’ shuffle.  The album version shambles from out of its killing pit in spiraling, tumbling Chandler/Hendrix flavored guitar scrambles kept buoyant by Steve Smith’s Earth-moving toms rolls and jazz-oriented fills, Robb’s driving pulse and lobotomizing wah-wah leads that graft themselves onto the tune’s high-energy, ramming speed bent though deliciously mid-tempo riff.  Defiant melodic vocals eventually settle into a catchy, despondent chorus with a killer hook, although any inkling of hopeful thoughts returning to the listener’s mind are cannibalized via a gnashing, infectious sludge riff and raspy, crucified vocal screams.  After a whooping, near industrial intro “The Black Flame of Cain” uncorks an ungodly bass riff given ten times the girth with some of the heaviest phasing effects I’ve ever heard on the instrument.  It provides much of the lead presence as Avery/Staton and Smith shade in the area around it with atmospheric guitar riffing and an insistent blues beat, respectively.  Anthony’s voice is melted into a heatstroke southern drawl that copulates messily with the increasingly repulsive doom riffing.  Honestly, doom doesn’t get any heavier than this.  The vocals waver between blown-out, highly expressive shouts and searing, damaged melodicism molded in the same fashion as the disgusting sonic swing the band locks onto.  Am I crazy or do I hear some Danzig III; How the Gods Kill bleeding into the background of this slimebucket sludge epic?  Once Anthony’s suffocating, slightly distorted Strep throat retch enters the fray it’s lights out for the meek; the song eventually rushing its way to a semi-speedy, broken n’ crusty finish carried on the wings of some of the album’s most nihilistic riffage.

Going into rusted-blade, switchblade crust/blues mode, “Luckless Bastards” hobbles into a crippled Lemmy tempo.  Mike deals riff after riff from his deck of destruction, the drumming pounds everything into place as Steve struts his super taut snare work, Staton abandons singing for godless bile and Hewlett doubles the looming shadow of the entire twin axe affair.  After a shout-a-long, economical chorus (the song’s title spewed like a mantra), at 1:46 the song plummets into the kind of detuned and positively fucking contagious groove that shows why they guys have been top of their class since Sonic Witchcraft.  Worshippers of lengthy Soulpreacher jams like the multi-part “Blues for a Blackened World” from the debut, the sprawling gems on the sophomore album or Horseskull’s own “Ara: h: ari” will want to drink Jim Jones’ kool-aid to celebrate the monolithic raising of towering closer “Lost all I had then lost again.”  17+ minutes is a daunting challenge to tackle but the track builds nice and steady on the bass, warps like a mirage from the scorching snare fills and cautiously stacks riffs to the sky.  The vocals warp from authoritative narration to violent hate screeches to heartbreaking melancholia while a tour de force of gargantuan anti-matter sludge plod, heathen blues riffs and dementia inducing 70s psyche leads conjure up imagery of Celtic Frost blowing up Hawkwind’s mothership with nuclear missiles as tall as Cathedral’s stained glass tones.  And just when you think the track will dissipate into negative FX space…well, you’ll find it comes at you from the beyond one last time (with some of its best riffs to boot…pure southern Sabbath soul).  The lyrics on this fucker also break me up into nothing, this being some of Anthony’s purest work to date…this track and the entire record in general.  He’s on a whole ‘nother level yet again.

Chemical Winter Blues had a tall fucking order to fill.  If it was even half as good as the Self-Titled we’d have been cooking with gas.  In my opinion the songwriting and dynamics here trump Horseskull’s debut offering in every way.  Everything these guys do is a total shot of cyanide n’ adrenaline straight to the vein, making it hard to pick a favorite release  from the collective but I’ve already played the digital version of this behemoth to death with no signs of stopping anytime soon.  Hopefully Chemical Winter Blues will get a vinyl and CD release like its predecessor because it sure as hell fuckin’ deserves it.  There’s been a lot of really good sludge/doom/blues dipped stuff coming down the pike lately and it’s without hesitation that the fine miscreants of Horseskull (and Soulpreacher) are once more at the head of the pack.  You can tell they put some serious time into developing their material onstage and at rehearsals.  Also, the in-house production performed by the band members themselves couldn’t have hammered home the mission statement anymore soundly.  Highly recommended stuff…

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Jay S
May 29th, 2018

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