Keelhaul - _Keelhaul's Triumphant Return to Obscurity_
(Hydra Head, 2009)
by: Noel Oxford (5 out of 10)
A band like Keelhaul has a slender tightrope to walk, and dangerous pitfalls lie to either side. Flanked on the left by staggering complexity pushed to frankly irresponsible extremes, and on the right by stodgy, bloated, by-the-numbers metal riffing; it takes a band of rare aplomb to pick a path through such a maze that will please anybody but themselves. When it works, as it did on 2003's _Subject to Change Without Notice_, what you get is a sublime record, as mottled with tempo and dynamic shifts as it is embossed with solid, heavy and inventive guitar work. Unfortunately, when it doesn't, you get _Triumphant Return to Obscurity_.

This album still has yet to plant a single really good, solid hook in me, a fact that is proving difficult to get my mind around, because on paper, the Keelhaul formula is present and correct in every regard. The drums thrash around, snapping back and forth like a beached carp; the guitars march relentlessly forward, in eternal lockstep; and vocals are, for the most part, sparse, and growled or barked unintelligibly into the maelstrom. What the heck went wrong?

The immediate and obvious objection is that, for a good two-thirds of its length, _Triumphant Return..._ seems to just meander about spasmodically, lacking much coherence, and losing your attention almost as quickly as it's grabbed. The record takes nigh on twelve minutes to do anything truly ear-catching, at which point the arpeggiated 6/8 figurehead of "High Seas Viking Eulogy" hoves into view, almost instantly capsizing into a mournful chord progression underpinned by throbbing tom-tom work. It's not stunning, but it's good enough to distinguish itself, at least. Meanwhile "THC for One", immediately following in its wake, is a wide-gaited, soldiering groover, and the only tune that proves itself genuinely worthy of inclusion here. It's also one of the very few Keelhaul songs to my knowledge to employ clean vocals, wound together in a gently melancholic chorus, and honeyed with harmony.

Later, "Waiting for the Moon to Speak" brings a classic prog fret-wank flavour, reminiscent of Camel. It's a welcome reprieve from the frenetically twitching rhythms we have heard thus far, but also a pretty decent tune in its own right. "Brady's Lament", on the other hand, is a proper wedge of stanking riffs and loose-limbed grooves, and a tantalising glimpse of the Keelhaul we used to love.

Elsewhere, though, we're pretty much stuck with the same directionless, angular peregrinations that dominate this record, with little to distinguish one tune from another. "Kirby Wurm" starts and ends with an atmospheric building riff of gigantic promise, but squanders that potential in a tumbledown midsection that could have been cut and pasted from almost anywhere else on the album. Similarly, "Glorious Car Activities" seems like it's taking us somewhere new and exciting, but after spending the entire journey needing a wee and feeling travel sick, we're disappointed to find we've been brought to Skegness. Again. Ho hum.

After three accomplished and multi-faceted albums, each encrusted with riffs big enough to power Watford Gap services for an entire year (including the petrol station), it's hard to express the disappointment of finding their latest, much anticipated piece of work so lacklustre. It is baffling, and slightly distressing, to say the least. But ultimately, too much of its length is devoted to tangled-marionette-strings rhythmical jerkery, and not enough is given over to texture, atmospherics or simple, honest to God riffing, all of which this record sorely lacks.


(article published 3/9/2009)

8/12/2001 P Schwarz Keelhaul: Angled to Amaze
8/12/2001 P Schwarz 10 Keelhaul - II
8/12/2000 P Schwarz 9 Keelhaul - Keelhaul
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