Graded on a Curve:
Mount Carmel, Real Women

A lot of bands have taken influence from the sound of early ‘70s bluesy hard rock. But one band manages to capture that era’s heavy, jamming spirit so closely that it can feel like an actual time warp back to ’73. That band is Columbus Ohio’s Mount Carmel.

It’s been often fashionable to knock the efforts of the blues-based non-purist bands that proliferated in the wake of Cream, the Jeff Beck Group and Ten Years After. It’s in some ways a punk-centric attitude, but it’s also reflective of a belief that the urge to rock should be accompanied by at least some level of taste, discernible intelligence, or at least a motivation beyond the simple desire to wed big riffs, heavy rhythms, and ripping solos. In short, the Nixon-era influx of bands like Free and Mountain is viewed by many as a debasement of the form propagated by a bunch of dummies trampling upon the sacred ground of the blues. A sense of respect and decorum regarding history is what separated Clapton and the Allman Brothers from say Humble Pie and Cactus.

Now a fair amount of blues-rock was bad and some of it was even plumb awful, but its success ratio is really no better or worse than any other genre. And many people tend to ignore that it was a legitimately new wrinkle in rock’s development; increased virtuosity (of a non-prog-rock stripe) heightened through extensive practice in turn lent an increased heaviness to the band dynamic. People just too often mistook a lack of subtlety for a lack of value. If Led Zep and Black Sabbath have slowly seen an increase in critical validation, then the vast majority of their brethren are still victims of often snide dismissals.

With all this said, many listeners will automatically consider the music of Mount Carmel to be an exercise in the retrograde. The band’s second LP Real Women is so boldly created in the image of its models that it’s damn near impossible to not immediately perceive it as a defiantly luddite gesture, the utter lack of contemporary (or even twenty year old) influences seemingly postulating that any musical developments to have occurred after the breakup of Beck, Bogert & Appice are unworthy of representation in their sound.

On their self-titled first record the band infused their bluesy ruminations with a hint of Blue Cheer-like grit. The drumming was loose and driving, the bass lively but not too busy, and the guitar spit out skuzzy chunks of riffs and flights of woozy soloing, all with vocals that thankfully lacked the need for emotional overreach. And just to make emphatically plain the tradition into which they were tapping, the trio covered Ten Years After’s “Hear Me Callin’” replete with an extended drum workout and closed the set with eleven minutes simply titled “Studio Jam.” It was a fine out-of-time debut, bringing to mind what I’ve always suspected Sabbath sounded like back when they were called Earth.

However, Real Women is tighter, more groove oriented, and less about the exalted properties of the jam. No track tops five minutes, and it’s obvious that considerable effort was spent building and then honing catchier songs. The singing has attained a more soulful edge while still denying any urge to succumb to the strained wailing that frankly damaged a lot of the genre back in the day. And that’s a general pleasantry of the power-trio; the person emoting is also responsible for handling an instrument instead of just standing in front of three really adept players trying to prove worthy of being in the same room or on the same stage.

And if the thrust has shifted from impolite, slightly dusted blues studies to concise melodic power-rocking, the music still feels derived from the same three guys. This is again partly due to guitarist Matthew Reed’s vocals, which while non-showoffy are also quite distinct. But it’s also true that the band’s jump from post-Alvin Lee/Cream form-stretching to a sort of Humble Pie/ZZ Top/James Gang merger isn’t really that large. It’s just notable as admirable progress.

Maybe the most interesting aspect in Real Women fresh approach comes through Kevin Skubak’s drumming. Where on the debut he was loose but never off his game, here he grapples with a thunderous heaviness that directly recalls the power of Ginger Baker. And the way he synchs up with Patrick Reed’s bass provides the songs with massive bottom end, allowing the trio to examine a sort of groove-strut that’s remindful of ZZ Top at their early best.

What’s obvious is how Mount Carmel dearly loves the music that serves as their inspiration, and in fact this love is the biggest reason for their success. It’s what instills the desire for repeated listens into their tunes, and makes clear that the band’s disinterest in any of the progress rock music has made since the early ‘70s is far more than just a gesture of audacity. They’re not sneering at the contemporary but instead enthusing over a style that’s undeniably been given short-shrift in the years following its collapse in the foul air of Arena Rock.

And that raises another point in Mount Carmel’s favor; specifically the opportunity to nix the less inspiring moments in hard-rock’s past (and there were many) and refine the far more productive aspects that make the genre perfectly valid for resuscitation in 2012. This process of selection through hindsight actually makes Real Women an experience of higher quality than some of its key influences. It’s lean, doesn’t overstay its welcome and the only questionable thing on display is an indulgence in what can be described as a non-progressive lyrical stance on the title track. But it’s not like I believe Mount Carmel actually buy the sentiments expressed; instead I just chalk it up to period flavor.

So Real Women is far more than just a replica or distillation of its influences, showing Mount Carmel to be a thriving band in excellent form. It does however lack the sheer depth of their New York blues-rocking cousins Endless Boogie. That band is equally divested of contemporary touches, but they also possess a startlingly creative moxie, with some of their lengthy jams managing to even flash undercurrents of sly experimentation. Mount Carmel in no way pale in comparison, but the band does hit a qualitative ceiling in toeing the hard rock line so closely.

The growth displayed on Real Women shows that Mount Carmel is capable of cracking that ceiling. If they don’t, it won’t be a terrible loss; ultimately it’ll just be the difference between a very fine band and a truly exceptional one.

GRADED ON A CURVE: B+

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