HERON – Empires of Ash

Following a couple of EP releases, Canadian doom/sludge metal merchants Heron found themselves on the roster of bands at the independent Sludgelord Records. The sometime home of Stone Machine Electric, Bible Basher and Coffin Torture, the band would be in good company, and in many ways, associations with such a great label forced them to up their game. Their 2018 LP ‘A Low Winter Sun’ was a masterclass in weighty sounds; its sludge fuelled approach suggested a love of Conan, and it’s purer doom elements drew from Electric Wizard, but for the more finely tuned ear, the record also displayed a strange, deep psych and heavy post rock tone in the guitar work that allowed the extremely heavy sound to appear more cinematic in its own way.

Four years on, and the band’s third full length release ‘Empires of Ash’ cements their place within a doom laden underground with another five numbers which take on an almost monolithic presence; recordings which more than build upon the band’s previous heaviness, yet never sound like an easy retread. In short, it represents everything that extant fans have come to love about the band, but also suggests that Heron are keen to take their doom laden post metal onslaught further. It’s a remit that this album fills admirably…and then some.

‘Rust & Rot’ opens with a real intent when a tribal drum part underscores some very distorted and slow riffs, casting Heron in a similar mould to early Sail and classic Yanomamo. The same riff repeats for what feels like forever, before changing key a couple of times and then returning to its original drone. For doom lovers, it’s an almost perfect way to fill two minutes with the minimum of fuss, but then, any latent furies are further unleashed via a terrifically brutal vocal where a scratchy noise delivers what appears to be a very aggressive lyric. Since none of the words are actually audible, it soon becomes like extra instrumentation, but for anyone already familiar with Heron’s uncompromising style, this won’t be an issue. Once the track reaches its mid point, the band crank the tension by slowing down much further, and their ability to drop into a funeral doom riff is almost unparalleled. With the drums adopting a really haunting, reverbed tone throughout and a once heavy guitar now gleefully chugging out what feels like a single chord every thirty seconds, the lengthy climax of this opening number revels in the ultimate sludge, becoming the purest bait necessary to reel in genre fans for the rest of a very uncompromising album. If you can make it through this, then the rest of ‘Empires’ should be a breeze…

‘The Middle Distance’ provides a brief musical respite and a little balance when a clean toned opening riff supplies an intro where classic stoner intents are joined by a dark, gothic melody and the dominant tones almost take on a haunting folky sound. The main guitar riff unwinds very slowly, and by bringing in light percussive elements and a counter melody from a second guitar, the band are clearly in no real hurry to make a dramatic impact. In fact, it’s a full three minutes before the expected heaviness arrives, but once it does, everything shifts into a place that’s unmistakably Heron, with funereal doom riffs lurching in an especially menacing way, before a retching voice warns of “darkness” and various other indistinct threats. It could all seem terribly clichéd at this point, but there’s something about Heron’s sense of commitment that ensures a very familiar sound still has a great impact, and the marriage of clanging ride cymbal, distorted guitar and a deep bass capture something wonderfully pure within a drudge-laden noise. Although it shouldn’t be approached casually, there are a surprising amount of layers here for genre fans to wade through, and despite seeming cold and impenetrable on the surface, it’s very much the kind of heavy workout that becomes more rewarding over time, assuming Heron don’t send you into a sludge induced coma.

‘Hauntology’, makes good on a couple of ideas lurking within the previous tunes – namely a gothic influence in the opening guitar passages and a classic doom riff – but there’s never a feeling that Heron are merely repeating themselves. The reverb applied to the clean(er) guitar parts gives the riff a very early 90s feel, and the way its slow yet melodic presence gradually builds a mood shows a great thoughtfulness. Likewise, the way Heron utilise droning sounds during this disquieting opening gives their work almost an unexpected cinematic quality, which serves to make the heaviness seem heavier – and sure enough, the arrival of a classic doom/goth riff has that expected impact. Just when you think Heron may well have peaked, they actually stretch for an even greater heaviness: first by applying a huge echoing drum part worthy of Bast, and then by switching to a more jagged riff that injects a touch of hardcore into their trademark doom. For some, this will represent a musical hell – an uncompromising sledgehammer of sound that has the potential to feel claustrophobic; for others, a sludge infested treat. Any reaction gained is likely to be extreme either way, of course, so in genre terms, it should be considered a job well done.

After crawling through three songs in approximately twenty five minutes, Heron definitely peak early in terms of pure doom, but the remaining pair of numbers aren’t without charm, since the band have clearly held back most of their more accessible melodies for a big finish. The brilliant ‘Hungry Ghosts’ works a terrific tribal drum part against a sludgy guitar, before sliding head first into a riff on loan from Tony Iommi, but heavied up by about three hundred percent. The slightly faster approach shows off more of a melody that’s very welcome, especially as it’s intercut with some great horsey squeals and a couple of groove metal interludes. It’s certainly the only track here that might have any hope of attracting unfamiliar ears, as the tiny nods to Lamb of God sound very contemporary for the time of recording, and with the live sound of the drums recalling bits of Tuskar, there’s a very full sound to the performance. Finally, ‘With Dead Eyes’ slips a little desert rock into the Heron palate with a warm bass and drum groove, overlaid by echoing guitar that’s much closer to something from Brant Bjork than Conan. The music is superb, but the vocal – another round of throat caning noise – seems somewhat of a mismatch. Nevertheless, the commitment to a groove and the power in the riffs remain strong enough for fans of loud stoner rock to discover something that’ll appeal.

Five very slow and (mostly) very heavy songs in approximately forty minutes can be hard going if you’re not in the mood, but there’s little doubt that, in terms of no-frills doom metal with a classic and often sludgy sound, this release from Heron hits the mark with a genuine intent. They’re not aiming to reel in the mildly curious here; ‘Empires of Ash’ is all about purity, and with a December release, the band stake an eleventh hour claim for one of the heaviest albums of ’22. If you were aware of Heron previously, you know you want this…and if you weren’t, prepare to be gradually pummelled into oblivion – after listening, you’ll never feel quite the same again.

November 2022