There once was a time when rock was seen as the primal thumping wail of the uninformed, the mutant howl of a great unwashed segment of the population who didn’t care about anything but the oblivion brought about by a backbeat and an electroshocking zap of noise. This was, of course, nonsense: rock has always been not just smart but self-aware, an alternate cultural path for adherents to meet like-minded souls and transcend life’s ignominies with shared transcendental meditation via amplification and raised fists clenching proverbial invisible oranges. But there is a change afoot: as rock finds itself up against the wall again, facing eternal extinction in an age of lugubrious internet celebrity worship, new adherents have proven themselves adept at scavenging through the corpses of rock’s defiled burial plot, pushing their glasses up their noses as they defiantly display themselves knowledgeable of all manner of rock coordinates, with a dearth of concern for what would have been deemed obscurity in an older age; dropping science vis-a-vis old and new musical reference points is no longer a sad act of creative anachronism in today’s soundscape.
Especially when done as artfully and riff-tastically as Boston doom peddlers Worshipper, who celebrate the release of their debut platter Shadow Hymns (out now via Tee Pee Records) this Friday, September 9 at ONCE Ballroom in Somerville, the venue where they won the 2016 Rock And Roll Rumble back in April.
“It’s kind of amazing, really, what people all know about nowadays, what is shared knowledge in a rock audience,” muses John Brookhouse, singer and guitarist for the band. “And it’s so cool the kinds of things that everyone knows about now. Like a few years ago Bob [Maloney, Worshipper bassist] and I went to see Uli Jon Roth [German neoclassicist and founding Scorpions guitarist] and it was mind-blowingly great; he was like a metal Hendrix. And it was just so incredible that he has an audience nowadays. It used to be that you’d be like ‘Oh I liked when David Coverdale sang for Deep Purple?’ and people would be like ‘What, he sang for Deep Purple?’ Now, everyone knows that stuff; the tides have turned.”
Yes they have, thankfully, as rock fans have not only learned to do their homework and occasionally upturn the lexicon a little. Part of it has to do with the ubiquity of knowledge in an internet era, but part of it too is the razing of the walls that divided segments of rock’s audience. Worshipper are a perfect example of the way that a modern metal band can stride, like the Colossus of Rhodes, with conquering limbs from land to land, laying claim to all sorts of once-clashing cultural and musical bounty.
“We love, for instance, the whole ‘new wave of British heavy metal’ thing, obviously,” explains Brookhouse. “But there’s a lot of things that we don’t like about that whole era too. So we just kind of cherry pick things from different eras — I mean, we aren’t going to start wearing bullet belts or, you know, wear puffy high tops! We don’t want to do that thing where you, as a band, live within a certain role of a certain era, we’re not into that. I think that, more than anything, whatever makes a song cool, whether it’s a thrashy break, or a Sabbath-y riff, if it works, it works. There really aren’t any rules.”
A lack of rules in the discipline of rock music might sound like some Lord of the Flies-esque romp of careless malevolence trounced through the sacrosanct garden of rock’s majestic flowering; but in the hands of reverent tunesmiths like Worshipper, it’s anything but, as their internal judging of a tune’s worth is a worthy substitute for the restrictive rule-mongering of a previous era when rock was more besotted with tiresome genre conventions. “There’s definitely this thing in metal or stoner metal or whatever,” explains Brookhouse, “where you’re supposed to pummel the same riff for 20 minutes, doing that Electric Wizard thing. That stuff is cool but I feel like, if anything, what we do is the opposite; we’re cutting stuff from our music constantly, making everything shorter and more concise, editing things out and adding different parts in. And then filling everything with, you know, vocal harmonies and ooh’s and ahh’s.”
The resulting product is a collection of tunes that are, by turns, dark and oozing, with sharp turns and crunching breaks, but also delicate shifts from dark to light and back again, with a deft ear for melody as a throughline that keeps the whole thing from sounding at all schizophrenic. Warhorse tracks like “Place Beyond the Light” and “Darkness” mix thudding dum-dum riffs that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Witchfinder General album with gentle acoustic passages and searing twin lead guitar work (courtesy of Brookhouse and guitarist Alejandro Necochea), all woven together in such a way that a four- or five-minute song seamlessly squeezes in an album’s worth of musical ideas without sounding jarring or indulgent.
It has a lot to do with the band’s lack of an agenda upon forming, as Worshipper’s inchoate pupal stage gave ample time for the music to choose its master rather than vice versa. Brookhouse’s role as lead vocalist was never a plotted direction of the band’s, and yet his crackling bellow, emerging from the band’s scorched earth maelstrom, focuses the fury with the pointed potency. “It wound up being a lot more Dio than I expected!” Brookhouse explains, chortling at the accidentally majesty of his vocal delivery. “In my last band, the singer left and it was a pain trying to replace him, and I definitely didn’t want to deal with that again, so I was like ‘I think I’m going to try this.’”
Brookhouse isn’t too concerned with living up to the image of fronting a metal band; “Once you get in the mode of trying to please a certain segment of the audience,” he explains, “you’re defeating the purpose of making music for yourself.”
Which makes sense, because as we all know, a smart enough audience can get music that isn’t made for them specifically, because metal audiences are increasingly above and beyond the pandering that has at a certain level always been a part of the genre’s presentation. In a time when desperation amongst musical subcultures has truly begun to show in a ceaseless parade of gimmicky acts pathetically shilling concepts woven from rock’s past with no concern for either musical coherence or for a lasting metal culture that can do anything other than laugh pathetically at itself, it is truly a breath of fresh air when a level-headed metal troop can put together a bruising and searing act that relies solely on a bedrock of thought-through tracks filled with light and shade.
“It was tricky for a while, just kind of trying to find out what we were going to be, what we were going to sound like,” explains Brookhouse. “I mean, we had written most of the songs, gotten pretty far with the material without even a name or anything! The Google doc of band names we were tossing around went on for months and months, it was like 47 pages long. And along the way we had all sorts of joke names that sort of thing. But in the end, kind of like the songs themselves, we all kind of agreed on a name and theme that fit, that wasn’t a joke, that was about more than just making us laugh.”
WORSHIPPER + ZIP-TIE HANDCUFFS + THE DEVIL’S TWINS + SWIVEL :: Friday, September 9 at ONCE Ballroom, 156 Highland Ave. in Somerville, MA :: 7 p.m., 18-plus, $11 in advance and $15 at the door :: Advance tickets :: Facebook event page