Aaron Esterby - Electric Bass, Vocals
Chad Heille - Drums
Neal Stein - Electric Guitar, Keyboards
Recorded/Mixed by Neal Stein at Trandem Automotive Studios
Mastered by James Plotkin
Artwork by Brian Koschak
REVIEW BY THE OBELISK
The tale of Fargo, North Dakota, doomers Egypt is winding and easy to lose track of along the way, but what it rounds out to is that nine years after first getting together, the trio have completed their first album, Become the Sun. Their initial run was from 2003-2005. During that time, the lineup of bassist/vocalist Aaron Esterby, drummer Chad Heille and guitarist Ryan Grahn released a self-titled demo. In the meantime, thanks to word of mouth and a few choice reviews, that demo caught the attention of the heavy rock underground, which resulted in a vinyl release in 2008 and an accompanying CD issue through MeteorCity (review here). May 2010, Egypt reunited for a gig in their native Fargo, and now the lineup of Esterby, Heille and guitarist Neal Stein (who also recorded and mixed; James Plotkin mastered) have prepared a full-length debut as tonally rich as it is long in arriving. Some of the material on Become the Sun (released by Totem Cat Records) dates back to the first incarnation of the band – Grahn is giving a partial writing credit alongside Esterby, Heille, Stein and Deep Purple, whose “Black Night” serves as the penultimate track – but far from dated, the 10 cuts tap into 40-plus years of power-trio history to emerge with an album rooted in ‘70s groove but delivered with modern thickness and forays into jazz and boogie rock. Esterby’s bass tone exudes a particular warmth on a more languid cut like “Greenland,” but even on the guitar led “World Eater” or earlier “Orb of the Wizardking,” isn’t to be understated as a formative aspect of Egypt’s sound, even as his gruff, throaty, sometimes echoing vocals alternately remind of Alabama Thunderpussy, Crowbar, and in the case of the fuzzy “Snake Charmer,” a bit of The Midnight Ghost Train’s blues-based testifying preacherisms. He walks no less a thin line between clean and more abrasive singing than the band walks between motoring heavy rock and lumbering doom – the expanses covered between opener “Matterhorn,” “Greenland” and closer “Elk River Fire” perhaps somewhat exaggerated in geography in relation to the stylistic jumps Egypt are making within the genre, but still indicative of the band’s interest in covering a wide swath of ground. Either way, at just under an hour long (58:42), Become the Sun seeks to encompass nearly a decade’s worth of progression, tone worship and bluesy riffage.
In that, it’s successful. Egypt don’t emerge from Become the Sun’s 10 tracks as the reshapers of the genre they inhabit, but they unquestionably show the potential to leave their mark upon it, “Matterhorn” beginning the album with a plodding progression leading to a last-minute shuffle outro as though to hint at some of the pacing interplay to come. “The Village is Silent” nestles comfortably into a mid-tempo nod, and though Stein’s fuzz is front and center, Heille’s bass drum seems to be setting the tone just as much, with full punctuating kicks that resonate from within the thickness of the guitar and bass. There’s nothing much fancy to it – even when Stein takes his solo and more guitar layers emerge, Esterby following along on bass, Egypt stay forward-minded – but in its second half, the song breaks to a stillness evocative of the titular silence and the bass comes to the forefront, warm in a style more associated with European heavy psych these days than American rock and roll. Esterby lays the foundational melody of an engaging build, and Egypt know a good thing when they have it; locking in that groove, they hold it to the song’s conclusion, letting some sweet feedback ring out “The Village is Silent” directly into the contrasting aggressive immediacy of “Orb of the Wizardking.” With farther back vocals, the nine-minute third track aligns itself to a more epic feel, but transitions into a more open chorus and semi-psychedelic bridge that sets up the Sabbathian lead section to follow, Stein and Esterby hitting their wah in kind while Heille keeps Sleep-style time on his snare beneath. The long instrumental break accounts for much of the extra time in “Orb of the Wizardking,” but Egypt never lose total hold of the structure, and so when the thudding verse reemerges at the halfway point, it’s not so much a surprise as it is a testament to the band’s complexity of construction. They embark on a build to a slower riff that serves as the musical crux for the remaining 3:40 of the track, Esterby offering a last verse in time to the guitar that enhances both the sonic largesse and the structured feel, contributing largely to the final triumph.
By then, Egypt are nearly 20 minutes into the album and it would seem the course is set, but “Stalker” is quick to launch into a faster, classic rock course, Stein ripping out one of the record’s best solos while Esterby donates choice fills underneath. At 3:56, the song – the narrative lyrics of which seem to touch on that vague threat that often lurked in classic rock – still has time to slow itself down at the end, but after the rush of the verse and blues rock vibing, the impulse is understandable, and though they hit the brakes near the finish, the momentum they work up throughout “Stalker” nonetheless continues into “Hillside,” which is longer, more manic vocally and based around a riff that, even dirtied up as it is, can’t help but show some of the Richie Blackmore influence that shows up later more blatantly with the aforementioned “Black Night” cover. Perhaps it’s a bit of symmetry that they’d end the first half of Become the Sun with that particular style of rhythmic complexity only to revisit it toward the latter part of the second, but whatever the intent, it goes to further demonstrating the overall flow of the album, and Egypt continue their penchant for slower, groovier ending jams here as well, “Hillside” opening up to a choice lead from Stein and some simple but effective runs from Heille. They’re about as stoner rock as they get (or the proverbial “it” gets), and the song ends cold with a few seconds of silence before Esterby introduces “Greenland,” soon joined by Heille’s ride cymbal and some Hendrix-style swirl from Stein. They threaten heavier progressions, but even as “Greenland” picks up, it remains ethereal – an American answer perhaps to some of the desert worship propagated by Mars Red Sky’s laid back heavy visions – and when they arrive, vocals are clean and used sparingly, the tone clearly meant to be the focus. Sure enough, one can almost hear the speaker cones vibrating as the track approaches its finish and the fuzz-drenched “World Eater” initially revives the straightforward feel of “Matterhorn,” albeit somewhat quicker in tempo, but winds up much farther ranging musically, breaking at 4:30 to a chant-topped stonerized riff that leads back to a slurred verse and Esterby’s bass introducing the ending shuffle that’s as active as anything on Become the Sun, layers of solo guitar harmonies hinting at classic metal without ever giving themselves wholly up to it.
And “Snake Charmer” is nothing if not aptly named. Guitar, bass and drums, the song is swagger put to tape, Heille stomping out a simple verse rhythm for the open-ended guitar riff and bass to follow. A song can’t be this cocky and not have some kind of AC/DC influence, but Egypt remain in their element and keep the push of the end of “World Eater” alive well into the second half of “Snake Charmer,” the momentum carrying them right up to the brief half-time groove that ends the latter and leads into the Deep Purple cover, which, rawer vocally, conveys some of the ballsy, brash spirit of the original, even if it is missing the organ. Stein does well in balancing thickness of tone and precision of play, fluidly injecting leads into the verse before launching into the genuine solo, whammy and all. Mk. II Deep Purple had a special kind of chemistry that one can never really hope to capture fully, but Mk. II Egypt remain true to that era’s burgeoning vision of what it meant to be heavy, culminating – of course – in a big rock finish that seems about as far away from the instrumental, jazz-minded jamming that crops up in the 11-minute “Elk River Fire” as you can get, leaving it to the gradual shift from the more straightforward verse into a duly-percussed, vibe-heavy psychedelia to make the transition seem natural. Like the rest of the ground Egypt cover here, it does. Esterby and Stein have something of a showdown before the three-minute mark, and though it started out plotted, the progression that emerges ultimately feels at least in part improvised, the bass leading a quieter section that finds Heille exercising his toms while Stein offers subtle, Tim Sult-style wah flourish. They maintain tension thanks to the drums and gradually build back up to full volume, and just past six minutes in, cut to the album’s last big slowdown. They keep the same part going, loud, then quiet for a while, then loud again, and finish Become the Sun with a last reminder of the power of what a single riff can do when delivered with enough weight behind it to knock you upside your distortion-loving head. A fitting note to end on and a decent summation of the band’s general ethic, “Elk River Fire” is righteous in its groove and fully at home in its love of the riff, still retaining enough individuality in its execution to mark Egypt as something special and finally paying off the potential that was so prevalent on their demo. Recommended.