Dunsmuir certainly have an interesting pedigree. The brainchild of vocalist Neil Fallon (Clutch), he rounded up some impressive talent to collaborate with Dave Bone, guitarist of another of his side-projects, The Company Band, bassist Brad Davis of fellow stoner metal icons Fu Manchu, and Dio-era Black Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice. The latter is truly a smart move: many moments on Dunsmuir’s self-titled debut recall Black Sabbath and other classic rock bands, and Appice’s rock solid drumming propels these tunes when the guitars fall short. He isn’t flashy, but he is a master of finding the exact beat a song needs.
I will admit a bias: I am not a fan of Clutch, primarily due to Neil Fallon’s limited vocal range. Dunsmuir does very little to change that. Neil Fallon’s voice is very distinctive, and that actually works against Dunsmuir for most of this album: this just sounds too much like Clutch to feel like a separate project. In fact, if Clutch were to binge on Zeppelin and Blue Oyster Cult for a while before writing an album, this is exactly how I imagine it would sound. When the riffs get fast and fun, his delivery actually feels a little fresh, but when they aim for sludgy territory, he sounds the same as always. If that is something you enjoy, you will enjoy this far more than I did.
Opener “Hung On The Rocks” sets the tone early: the guitars have a definite throwback feel (as does the prominent cowbell in the chorus), but still fall solidly into the stoner metal genre. “Our Only Master” features a fun little verse riff that falls between British New Wave of Heavy Metal and punk, but the chorus tanks hard and kills any momentum the song had built. “The Bats (Are Hungry Tonight)” is one of the better songs here, splitting the difference between Maiden and Meat Loaf. It’s big and epic and dumb and a lot of fun, with a punchy chorus that succeeds despite Fallon’s uninspired delivery.
“What Manner of Bliss?” is straight downtempo, sludgy Sabbath worship, and Appice’s heavy snare strikes cut through the guitars to give you something to (slowly) headbang to. That said, it’s not very good Sabbath worship, and any time a song that’s barely over 4 minutes long feels like it’s ten, something has gone horribly wrong. “Deceiver” is far and away the album highlight, with an amazing earworm guitar hook and a chorus effect on Fallon’s vocals that add just enough echo to make him sound like he’s straight out of the 80s, and his slight overreach for high notes (well, mid, but this is Neil Fallon we’re talking about) on the chorus actually works in the song’s favor, lending it some urgency. It even ends strong, cutting out abruptly at just under three minutes. “…And Madness” trades in the Judas Priest vibe to adopt some Deep Purple licks (add Hammond organ over this song and it would be hard to tell them apart). While they hold some songs back, his vocals fit perfectly here. The chorus is bland enough to drag the song out of highlight range, though.
“Orb Of Empire” has a pretty nasty, Velvet Revolver-esque riff, but is otherwise utterly forgettable. “Church Of The Tooth” lacks even that: it’s slow and sludgy, but the bass is mixed way too low and the minimal guitars don’t really provide enough meat for this to even feel like a finished song. This is garage-band demo level bad. “The Gate” is significantly better, with a galloping, time-shifting riff and no-nonsense drumming that keeps the veering twists from pulling the song apart. It’s not very original, but it’s definitely solid. Dunsmuir save one of the best songs for last with “Crawling Chaos,” with a menacing riff that evolves over the course of the song, and an interesting half-spoke vocal rhythm that provides a counter-rhythm to the snaking guitar line. The two come together to create a huge chorus straight out of the King Diamond playbook. This is the only slow-tempo song on the album to really work, and it gives me hope that if Dunsmuir write again in the future, they can make a much more consistent collection of songs. As is, though, this may be worth a casual listen (at least “Deceiver” and “Crawling Chaos” do), but it can’t quite stand out from Fallon’s other work.