1968 – Ballads Of The Godless

At the very beginning of 2016, a doom-blues/stoner trio crawled from the wilds of Cheshire and into the ears of an unsuspecting audience. Amping the blues much further than most had dared, their debut EP presented a cornucopia of heavy riffs; their music a fuzzy love letter to metal’s founding fathers. Almost twelve months later, that EP remained almost unsurpassed, marking a place among the year’s finest metal achievements. A year on, the band signed with Black Bow Records – home to Bast and Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard – for a well received follow up.

2018’s ‘Ballads of The Godless’ – released through HeviSike Records is, well, heavy. Sometimes drainingly so. However, if you’ve already been acquainted with the 1968 sound, the album brings forth plenty of superb riffs; riffs which, when dressed in the band’s signature sludgy sound, have a timeless appeal. Timeless, of course, if you like Orange Goblin, Electric Wizard, Sloburn and Slomatics. As before, if you’re able to see through the heaviness, it also includes some fine, blues tinged sounds that – thanks to a very old-fashioned production style – are a welcome nod to a world of fuzzy analogue grooves in an all too digital age.

Looking at the album’s two most essential tracks first, ‘McQueen’ shows off the band’s bluesiest traits during its verses, with a mix of wah-ed guitar tones and a moodiness that isn’t always a million miles away from a more tuneful Mountain. Frontman James Coppack drops into a deep and curling croon to suit and there’s a feeling these quieter moments could represent some of 1968’s most thoughtful music to date. The heaviness comes in time, of course, and when it does, the riff is immense. Hugely downtuned and with amps firmly cranked, Sam Orr helps to usher in a doom blues world that sounds like a John Garcia project tempered by a Conan-esque sluge. Having already shown his voice has a strong presence, to combat such an insanely heavy riff, Coppack throws out an intensive roar; gruff while remaining accessible – and all things combined, these seven minutes represent most of 1968’s finest achievements in one hit. A genuine doom classic. With a riff that sounds rather like the closing moments of Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ during its intro, ‘Screaming Sun’ gets off to a fantastic start, but then gets even better with the presence of a heavy drum part that’s rather minimalist on the cymbals. Increased focus on heavy toms sets up an almost tribalist stance, which in turn is a superb backdrop for a great riff. …And that riff is mega-heavy. Almost dirgy in its repetitious sound, the downtuned noises which emerge are the best in very aggressive stoner. Beneath it all, there are nods to psych and blues, which increase the enjoyment factor. With a repeated refrain of “woo-hoo” and treated vocals suggesting that no matter how heavy things get, 1968 are interested in layers and textures, this is great. None of this is a match for the mid-section, though, which dispenses with all doom in favour of a deep and funky groove. Live sounding drums are key to everything here, but Sam’s guitar effects also bring something new, as multi-layered and cleaner tones appear to owe more to U2 and The Edge than Tony Iommi or Kirk Windstein. Most unexpected and absolutely stunning…

Elsewhere, ‘DevilSwine’ crashes in with various backwards noises and then creates some top notch blues sounds, heavied up by about a thousand notches for that all important metallic edge. In terms of vocals, it’s one of the album’s best tracks hands down – James is in fantastic voice here – while the semi-sludgy guitars groove and grind in a way that’s almost guaranteed to please fans of a similar style. Forget Zakk Wylde’s Black Label boredom, this is the real deal, especially by the time the heaviest edges subside to reveal a wondrously confident bassline backing a howling lead break.
Taking on a slightly more contemporary style at the time of recording, ‘The Hunted’ casts aside a few of the doomier elements to create something that sounds like John Garcia jamming with (the overrated) Royal Blood. A track with a great drum groove, this strikes a great balance between heaviness and accessibility and it’s great to hear Sam experimenting with guitar tones of a more shrill nature. By the close of the number, things are much heavier, especially on the drumming front; the band go straight into a full on jam that shows parallels with Cream’s live shows, proving their musical muscle for all to hear. There are differences with this track that help lend the album some feeling of variety, but at the heart of it all, though, if you’ve enjoyed 1968’s core sounds thus far, chances are, you’ll still love this.

Deeper into the blues, ‘Mother of God’ opts for a late 60s inspired, LSD styled freakout. Hints of the much missed Skeletons In The Piano jostle alongside heavy guitar work akin to Aussie stoners Devil Electric. It’s defiantly retro and it’s probably a thrill for budding guitarists, but as little more than a recorded jam which the listener has joined midway, it certainly errs on the side of filler.
An odd interlude of finely played acoustic guitar and piano, ‘SJD’ pays homage to the heavy heroes of the 70s who often included similar musical curveballs on their classic albums. Rather than just filler, though, the core of the melody sets the scene for the following ‘Chemtrail Blues’, another album highlight. Providing woozy, almost sickly vibes as very heavy blues jams are subjected to a few studio tricks that make the listener feel as if they’re drowning in sound, ‘Chemtrail Blues’ takes a small amount of adjustment, but in terms of pure blues rock guitar playing, it’s a genuine thrill. Although still heavy, it’s one of the numbers where the power trio format is worked to it’s best advantage; the featured guitar solos are fab and the bass playing is especially glorious, provided you’re able to tune your mind into it’s busy style behind the wall of sound that’s been built around it. In lots of ways, it’s the lynch pin of the whole album: it has some of the doomier aspects that 1968 know their fans crave, but the blues elements show what superb players the band really are.

Having already shown a genuine flair for blues, metal, doom and sludge in equal measure throughout their career to date, ‘Temple of The Acidwolf’ doesn’t mess around with any crossover styles, at least not to begin with. If you want grungy doom metal, look no further. The crunch has a root within old Clutch and Crowbar classics; the relentless buzz of the bass makes everything sound like its been inspired by Kyuss and the semi-atonal vocals rattle them bones of the departed Layne Staley. It’s never that simple of course. A heavy and slow instrumental break includes some blues inflected playing that makes so many blues rock bands sound like the bloated pub rockers they truly are…and eventually James’s lead vocal takes a slightly more melodic route, sounding more like the man who helped steer ‘McQueen’ to glory.

Although only eight songs long, the pacing, the weight and overall mix of this album sometimes makes it hard to get through in one sitting. You’re better off imagining your format of choice is a 1970s slab of black plastic and taking a breather once the needle hits the run-out groove after track four. That said, it is a brilliant long player. It does everything the EP did…and far more. 1968 are a band who really know how to create a real presence. For stoner and doom lovers, it could eventually become an indispensable wax.

July 2018