Graded on a Curve: Funeral Horse,
Divinity for the Wicked

As the name suggests, Funeral Horse prefer it dark, pummeling and raw, though the Houston-based trio’s thrust is more inclined toward stoner-riff velocity than the oft-gradual density of experimental doom. Extant since 2013 and no strangers to a touring van, they’ve recently released a sophomore full-length, and it expands their sonic template in interesting ways. Divinity for the Wicked is out now on virgin black vinyl in an edition of 400 copies through hometown label Artificial Head Records, and with exclusive artwork by the notable Brit scribbler Savage Pencil.

Make no mistake, Funeral Horse specializes in the heavy; Jason Argonaut plays the bass, Paul Bearer wields the guitar and spouts the syllables, and Chris Bassett thumps the cans, but with a couple of obviously bogue monikers in place the band makes it clear they don’t regard their collective endeavor too seriously.

And as one might guess, the basis for their sound is the work of Black Sabbath, particularly the four groundbreaking and enduringly influential albums the quartet cut in the early ‘70s, but perhaps just as enlightening is the trio’s open appreciation of such bastions of the style as Kyuss, Sleep, High On Fire, Harvey Milk, and the Melvins.

Funeral Horse debuted in July of 2013 with the six-song “Savage Audio Demon” EP. Self-released on extremely limited cassette (sold out but available digitally via Bandcamp), its contents are revealed as muscular yet energetic with a caustic guitar tone and agitated, low-mixed vocals; along the way atmospheres of psychedelia are interspersed with tribal bombast.

Brawny slabs of Texas-styled metallic-tinged punk throttle stand out amongst general riff-crunch and blade-sharp soloing, and additionally the theme-song of sorts “Funeral Horse” brandishes a gnarled up blues-rock swagger groove accented with Bearer’s submerged soul-wailing and crowned with a noise-thrash sprint to the finish.

“Savage Audio Demon” proved a solid beginning, but last year’s Sinister Rites of the Master (a title bringing to mind Euro-trash horror cinema of the ‘70s a la Jess Franco) raised their profile somewhat as it improved on its predecessor through stronger material. A largely straightforward LP, it did offer a few curveballs, specifically a spot of harmonica on “Communist’s Blues,” guest singing from Sarah Hirsch of fellow Houstonites Jealous Creatures on the death-trip country of “I Hear the Devil Calling Me,” and for the closer a sludgy reading of Rush’s “Working Man”.

The EP’s punkish aspects were less prevalent, and the savvy tightening of the focus persists on the latest effort. As on the prior record Funeral Horse’s fondness for spreading out remains, Divinity for the Wicked featuring seven tracks (the same number as Sinister Rites of the Master), though the unit can keep it short when necessary.

The disc opens with the hard-charging amp-thickness of “There Shall Be Vultures,” and if there’s a lingering odor of punk it wafts in courtesy of vocal chords situated in the mix to exploit the qualities of perturbed squall while simultaneously tempering the emotive. Like many of their cohorts in the stoner category, Funeral Horse is ultimately about the careful cultivation of a precise sound, and that Paul Bearer seems to be trapped in a trunk and shouting to get out makes total sense.

As does the ragged note-flurry of Bearer’s solo as the drumming thunders and the bass lends crucial bottom end. The pace is slowed for “Underneath All That Ever Was” as the group investigates their penchant for blues-rock-derived riff elasticity. Exploring doomier but still lively territory, Argonaut’s bass increases in expressiveness, Bassett unfurls some mighty gallops, and as Bearer’s blunted string-work uncoils it merges very nicely with a left-field mellotron.

Similar to the mouth organ on the previous album, the use of non-stoner specific instrumentation helps to relieve any encroaching stylistic genericism, but it should also be mentioned that attempting to doll-up a mediocre scenario by simply tacking on ingredients of the exotic is unlikely to fool attentive listeners. Well-integrated into Funeral Horse’s environs, the mellotron deepens an already intense composition.

The writing continues to improve, though the main objective of the Saharan blues snippet “A Bit of Weed” is a widening of the aural landscape. Certainly reinforcing their status as tokers (branching out from Sinister Rites of the Master’s “Stoned and Furious”) and underscoring the group’s mild psych elements, the conciseness basically serves as a prelude to the multi-tiered dynamism of side-closer “Gods of Savages.”

After a rather attractive instrumental preliminary, they launch into prime stomp mode as Bearer’s voice is less audibly constricted; apologies for the comparison, but he seems to be atop his steed and bellowing upon charging into a titanic battle. Later, his solo points straight back to early Iommi, and there’s even a little gothic organ as a capper.

If their preceding side two was mostly about diversity, Divinity for the Wicked’s flip is concerned with extension; “Yigael’s Wall” is over eight minutes worth of mood swings, tempo shifts, gnawing riffs, and cooperative dexterity, the result alternating between moments of building tension, mid-tempo passages of (relative) melodicism, and explosions of bruising power.

It’s possible some ears will register the vocalizing as a fault, but Bearer resists riding the mic for too long and lays out entirely for “Cities of the Red Night.” Gleaning its title from an excellent novel by esteemed litterateur William Seward Burroughs, its gliding North African tribal feel combines with “A Bit of Weed” to promote an appealingly arid sensation.

“Gifts of Opium and Myrrh” returns to the grinding norm. Initially striving for a wallop of a finale, the track gets the job done quite effectively, though the manner in which the sustained mid-section feedback leads into the bagpipes of the conclusion (referencing the standard march “Lord Lovat’s Lament”) maintains the emphasis on range and surprise.

The twists heighten Divinity for the Wicked’s overall impact, and while Funeral Horse can stand for a bit of fine-tuning in terms of songs and disposition (a few maneuvers do skirt close to cliché), they’ve delivered a strong LP in a fairly crowed genre field.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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