Graded on a Curve: Sweat Lodge,
Talismana

Claiming such hefty influences as St. Vitus, Mountain, and fellow Texans ZZ Top, the Austin-based quartet Sweat Lodge hath elected to grapple extensively with the formidable hard rock beast. Sparks of a decidedly stoner persuasion do fly from the ongoing tussle, and trace elements of heavy psychedelia are also palpable. Talismana is their full-length debut for Ripple Music, available now on CD, digital, and a vinyl pressing limited to 300 copies.

Alongside acts like Ditch Witch and The Well, Sweat Lodge is credited with shepherding Austin’s metal/stoner rock scene into its healthy current state. A worthy achievement to be sure, but they’ve additionally shared the stage with such luminaries as Mondo Generator, The Sword, Spirit Caravan, and perhaps most impressively Black Oak Arkansas. And if any doubt lingers of Sweat Lodge’s weightiness let it be known that this August 29 in Portland, OR they will be playing a little thing called the North West Hesh Fest, a three-day affair with a roster sporting Acid King, Dead Moon, and Pentagram.

Sweat Lodge made their initial statement in 2012 on a 4-song self-titled 7-inch EP issued by the American Icon label. At this juncture the band was a three-piece consisting of Austin Shockley’s deeply distorted bass, Caleb Dawson’s drum thunder, and Cody Lee Johnston’s extroverted heaviness at the microphone.

Yes, a guitar-less lineup plowing full speed ahead, the absence of a six-string lending the tracks a left-field edge that was surely appealing but frankly not wholly indicative of Sweat Lodge’s musical intentions. Backing up this observation is the outfit’s cassette tape of 2013, a 100 copy 4-song self-titled “demo style” edition documenting expansion to a quintet through two guitarists, namely Javier Gardea and Dustin Anderson.

Obviously the difference was immediate. The instrumental makeup of the 7-inch couldn’t help but tilt it toward the realms of experimental doom, though in fact the trio’s attack was pretty straightforward; just by adding two axes resulted in Sweat Lodge exiting the art-space and crashing a hopping summer barbeque complete with a Mason jar full of moonshine and a bag of homegrown.

So Talismana’s release is quite timely as the group’s recent relationship with the highly productive Ripple Music has increased their profile considerably and raised excitement for this long-player. Now that it’s arrived, the necessary amount of spins makes it easy to recommend to fans of this persistent style and heavy rock overall.

The 9-song set begins with “Tramplifier,” the cut briefly oozing distortion and spongy effects pedal strokes before launching into a massive gallop wielding appropriately large riffs. As they thunder forth a handful of traits become plain; foremost is evidence of hours spent in the practice space as Sweat Lodge pleasantly avoid faltering into an overly tight scheme.

Instead, they’ve honed dexterity loose enough to allow for dynamic fluidity throughout the song; particularly enjoyable is the instrumental uptick after Johnston’s first chorus, especially Dawson’s drumming, his skill at the kit one of Talismana’s consistent highlights. And at less than four minutes, “Tramplifier” outlines the album’s general adherence to concise running-times.

The brevity is generally a positive, though these ears could’ve handled a few lengthier selections. “Tramplifier” segues into the chunky uptempo of “Bed of Ashes,” the band uncoiling a fiery spring action scenario which Johnston employs as a platform for one of his strongest moments. Make no mistake, aggregations with members responsible for vocals-only are a dependably dicey proposition, but the verbalizations here lack the overwrought whilst solidly attaining the expressive urgency the form requires.

His swooping intensity is aided by the LP’s echo-laden production; a typical move maybe, but it (and what sounds like multi-tracking) frees-up Johnson to a smooth delivery rather than straining for effect. He nicely accentuates the tempo shifts, from doom-laden bombast to speedy flailing, that shape up “Slow Burn.”

Just as important to Sweat Lodge’s success is the nature of those riffs. The title of “Slow Burn” aside, these entries sidestep the molasses-thick plod residing on the far side of the doom landscape (again, as a three-piece sans guitar the cut of their jib was as rocking as it was heavy), being lively enough to plaster a smile onto the mug of one’s hypothetical Foghat-loving uncle or aunt.

Indeed, “Phoenix Ascent” has passages of chug velocity that would’ve produced some mighty clouds of celebratory dust during one of those all-day rock spectacles held at motor speedways in the heart of the 1970s. It’s possible those allergic to the era’s more populist endeavors at rocking hard will find this track (and the record as a whole) underwhelming, but from this perspective Sweat Lodge has the benefit of hindsight, largely eschewing the mistakes and mishaps of yore.

Really, the only hitch is that “Phoenix Ascent” fades out too soon. “Talismana” opens with some Sabbath-inflected stomp (think side two of Paranoid) but wastes no time in cultivating a fairly psychedelic environment while never losing tabs on the heaviness imperative. In terms of deft range of tempo and disciplined soloing, the title track is a standout.

The spirited density of “Black Horizon” should easily stir up ‘90s grunge diehards, and it serves as a fine lead-in to Talismana’s centerpiece. Another cited influence on Sweat Lodge is Fu Manchu, and the title “Boogie Bride” admittedly inspired worries over egregious “Ass, Gas or Grass”-styled moves (similar to the more trite aspects of those ‘70s motor speedway gatherings) but the unit sidestepped a potential letdown like champs.

The shape-shifting “Boogie Bride” offers seriousness of intent and is the longest number here; next to it “Heavy Head” feels a tad lesser, its changes a mite too calculated, at least until the slightly-“underwater” midsection. Closer “Banshee Call” starts slow with Johnston out front, gradually picks up the pace and ends abruptly after a wailing solo.

If a hindrance exists it’s found in the familiarity of a few of the progressions, spots connecting as if they were lifted from preexisting tunes and then grafted into Talismana’s grooves. Regarding their chosen genre, this isn’t a bad problem to have; a la garage or punk rock, post-bop or bluegrass, the stoner template is foremost about getting the trappings right; any stabs of originality are essentially icing. These are parameters Sweat Lodge knows very well.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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