I’m probably one of the few doom critics who didn’t put Windhand’s Relapse debut Soma in his year-end top 10 in 2013. Not that I really had anything against that album; I just thought it tested my patience a tad, what with its whopping 77-minute runtime. Since then, I’ve seen ’em live twice, and while they certainly don’t play a 77-minute set, they always seem to bring the intensity, whether headlining or as a supporting act. So I do respect them in that regard.
A band’s sophomore album can often be a make-or-break proposition. For instance, Royal Thunder were ruined for me by the sappy, mainstream-pandering effort of Crooked Doors earlier this year, and while it’s perhaps not fair to compare the two bands—I always thought Windhand had more doom cred—they’ve often been mentioned in the same sentence, being on the same label ‘n all. And with the explosion of the over-baked, female-fronted “occult doom” subgenre these past couple years, it remains to be seen how many of these outfits have true staying power. With all that being said, I still think Windhand are one of the better ones.
OK, technically this is Windhand’s third album, but I’m not sure anybody outside of Virginia heard their self-titled debut on Mordgrimm Records. (Personally, I have not.) Anyhoo, Grief’s Infernal Flower, an equally imposing 71-minute platter, starts off with a pair of burly doomsters in “Two Urns” and “Forest Clouds,” which collectively clock in just shy of 17 and a half minutes. The former has some really killer breakdowns two-thirds of the way through, while the latter is a lot like Jex Thoth, but with louder amps. As with Royal Thunder’s second effort, the vocals here seem more polished than on its predecessor—the difference being that Windhand hasn’t abandoned its penchant for heavy, fuzzy riffs. There might be more emphasis on the vocals this time around, but the rest of the band still holds its own.
From there, however, we’re hit with a fistful of tracks shorter than six minutes, in stark contrast to their debut. Tunes like “Crypt Key” combine sickly-sweet, almost goth-metal vocals with overdriven guitars and pounding drums, providing the punch their Georgia labelmates lacked. “Sparrow” provides an unanticipated, yet not unwelcome, acoustic change of pace. Frontwoman Dorthia Cottrell recently performed solo at the Vultures of Volume doomfest, and I imagine it sounded something like this.
But the band certainly hasn’t abandoned its doom background, with a pair of epic tracks each clocking in at 14+ minutes. “Hesperus” starts off slow ‘n sludgy with a Matt Pike-style riff that musta been transfused by osmosis when the band opened for High on Fire in Western Canada. The female vocals provide a nice contrast to the downtuned doom, lifting up what would otherwise be a rather morose track. “Kingfisher” has a slightly more experimental feel, with ringing notes and swirling effects leading us into another heavy helping of plodding, pounding doom. I feel like I might have already heard this one live…
So, is this record better than Soma? I’d say it’s certainly more polished, and more palatable to the general public. I’d also give ’em credit for not abandoning their doom roots. I can actually see myself listening to this one more than Soma, which I don’t revisit very often, so yes, it’s certainly worthy of a high score. And with the dearth of truly outstanding releases within my chosen semi-obscure subgenre this year, Grief’s Infernal Flower could very well crack my year-end top 10 in 2015.