House of the Tiger King by NomastaRelease date: November 3, 2017
It is an absolute cliché, but some bands are not suited to being listened to on a recording, and as much as House of the Tiger King is a great album, Nomasta are definitely one of those bands. Their live sound is powered by amps that are straining at the very edge of their range, underscored by drummer Andy Richards pounding the absolute crap out of his drumkit, and topped by Owen Wilson’s ravaged vocal. I’ve seen them live twice now, and both experiences were kinetic, raw and vital; to an extent I think those performances might have ruined the recorded experience for me a little bit.
The checkboxes are there to be ticked, the songs are well structured and clever, but the recorded experience feels a little too polite; neutered would be way too strong a word, but the feral edge that is a key part of the live experience has not been captured here. This dichotomy is represented perfectly by one of their key influences – when playing live Nomasta pull off the raw uncultured intensity of early Remission era Mastodon, whereas on record they feel restrained and disappointingly a little closer to latter day Mastodon.
Reading this back it looks like I’m giving this record a kicking and that is by no means the intention; House of the Tiger King is still a great album in its own right; bristling with invention, with more riffs per square inch than I’ve seen on a single release in a long time and a wonderfully adventurous view on time signatures it makes for an interesting metal record, even pushing towards progressive sludge in places. There’s nothing I can really level at the production, other than maybe a slight lack of low end, but even in the most complex of parts there is real clarity in the mix and the really inventive percussion and guitar lines are allowed to shine; it’s just that the bits that are supposed to crush – and when played live absolutely do crush – just, well, don’t.
The album opens with ‘Death Rattles’, a quiet and very pretty guitar line acting as a preface to a building structure that ramps up into the main song – this very much like a gradual escalation and introduction before the main event begins with lead-off single ‘The Book Burners’, which comes running out of the gates at a pace, blending sludge and an old school hardcore rhythm and an intricate guitar line before dropping into a riffy double bass driven section that feels very Mastodon in both the instrumentation and especially the vocal delivery. The chorus section brings a lovely clean vocal and a phrasing that again accentuates the Mastodon comparison, which is subverted slightly with a middle eight that sounds like something Torche would come up with. It’s a genuinely cracking song and feels perfectly formed, with lots of lovely little riffy touches and little one-off bridges that must have taken ages to structure and write. It is these little touches that make the album such and engrossing listen, and something that keeps the listener coming back for repeat listens; there is always something new to hear.
‘Sir Impaler’ brings a towering mid-tempo riff for the verse section, and a lovely (slightly Mastodon flavoured) chorus, ‘Alchematic’ opens with a vocal line that is weirdly reminiscent of the excellent He Is Legend before ripping into a pacey, pounding thumper. The song has definite shades of a slower, grumpier ‘Crusher Destroyer’ by Mastodon, but with added time changes, and features the best vocal performance of the album, some cracking, almost ambient guitar play and one particular groove part that made my head bob involuntarily. There are some proper diamonds in the songwriting, especially when Nomasta play with rhythms and pace – ‘This Trail Has Got The Best Of Us’ being a great example and conveniently also one of the best tracks on the record – one moment it’s sprinting along at a solid pace, then it drops to a sluggish sludgy crawl with a stomping riff ala High on Fire, before picking back up and changing tack altogether; it’s disorienting but never feels like the structure has been tacked together without thought, and all of the punches seem to land. ‘Hard as a Coffin Nail’ channels High on Fire at their riffiest and brings an excellent strained vocal performance and closer ‘Dawnbreaker’ brings some frankly elephantine riffs and lovely groove, before closing the album out with a restrained, bluesy single guitar and sung vocal line, which is surprisingly affecting and engaging.
There’s lots to love about this album; the sheer invention and both the quality and sheer quantity of the riffs on display is uniformly great, but the structure applied to the songs and the album feels natural and the songs flow perfectly, which is especially impressive given the regular changes in time signatures. The performance is good throughout and the songs are delivered with conviction throughout – the passion in Owen’s vocal is evident by the limit to which he is clearly pushing his vocal chords at times – and there are many moments of involuntary head bobbing and riff gurns – always a tell-tale sign of a great record.
With all that said, the record doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts; by rights this album should have been furious and crushing, but somehow that intensity is a little lacking and as a result it feels a little unsatisfying. If I were being super picky I’d say Nomasta don’t quite escape from the twin shadows of early Mastodon and High on Fire; this isn’t a massive problem, but key to moving forward will be for Nomasta to find their own voice a little, or at least convince in making these influences more their own, along with capturing the fury and conviction of their live performance.
To sum up, this is a fantastic record if you’ve not seen the band play live before and merely a great one if you have. Either way, well worth your time and you should absolutely check these guys out.