California prog rockers Old Man Wizard are no strangers to eclecticism in their music. On their debut record Unfavorable, they delved as deftly into classic progressive rock traditions as they did into heavier and thrashier influences. This time around, the band has delivered a similarly stunning array of motifs unified again by clever songwriting. “Innocent Hands”, a standalone single packaged with its corresponding B-side “The Blind Prince,” is an exciting statement of the band’s current direction for both new and returning listeners.
Much of the thrashy Motorhead-esque riffing found on Unfavorable has been replaced by a dip into the groovy stoner realm presided over by Queens of the Stone Age, ASG and The Sword as well a hearty hat-tip to melodic heavy rockers Ghost. Old Man Wizard’s signature lushly layered vocals are a pleasant complement to the richer and more robust riffs and grooves found here as opposed to the thinner guitar sound on their first release. The thick and crunchy guitar fuzz on Innocent Hands lays down a fat, juicy platform atop the same meaty bass of the first record so that the vocals can truly shine, as they aren’t tasked with as much of the heavy lifting in terms of filling out the music’s sonic spectrum as they previously were.
First impressions from the opening seconds of “Innocent Hands” would lead one to believe that Old Man Wizard is, in addition being to a band with a fantastic name, another in the slew of recent blackened [insert genre here] acts that seem to be dominating the heavy music spheres as of late. The song begins at full throttle with wall-to-wall black metal guitar chords ringing out over a wetly throbbing bassline and relaxed, mid-tempo blast beat in a 4-4-4-3 pattern. I’ve been into a few of the contemporary black metal bands these days, and I welcomed the opportunity to write about what I thought would be another. The chord progression established in the song’s opening section refrains from wallowing in the campily evil and/or morose vibes which are often found in the genre, and so already, my interest was piqued.
Old Man Wizard doesn’t take long to remind the listener, however, about the sort of genre-hopping adventurers that they are. After two quick passages through the opening black metal bit, the band shifts gears abruptly into a staccato verse punctuated by Psycho-esque vocal stabs while maintaining the 4-4-4-3 rhythmic structure of the intro. This cycle repeats twice before launching into the third section of the piece, a four-to-the-floor sludge beast of a prechorus driven by a wide-open drum groove on the crash that gives the fat, slappy snare plenty of room to breathe. Yet another gear shift later and it’s time for what feels like a chorus, a soaring section in 7/8 with fully layered vocals coating the ears in syrupy harmonized bliss. This marks the song’s midpoint, and we’ve already ventured through black metal, classic prog, and stoner sludge.
The 7/8 proto-chorus leaps in turn after a brief transition to a guitar solo that’s made all the more impressive after one realizes that it’s a variation on the verse. What was previously a sharp collection of needles and knives is re-imagined as a 4/4 bass-led funkfest over which a lone guitar conveys the verse’s vocal melody. Following a quick two-bar build, we’re treated to the second chorus-like section of the song, a triumphant downbeat-driven celebration that brings back the warm vocal blanket technique of the previous chorus before shifting almost undiscernibly into 7/8. This final part features a tremolo guitar melody delivering a catharsis rooted in the glorious predictability of its progression. The ear knows where it wants the melody to go, and the band obliges – almost. After almost four minutes of not knowing what’s around the next corner, this guitar line comforts the listener with a soothing hug of familiarity before finally, at the very end, tantalizingly refusing to resolve.
It’s a credit to the brains behind the music that even with the constant shifts in feel and time, the song remains cohesive throughout its nearly five minutes of life. Themes and ideas appear and reappear, giving a circular feel of resolution to a very atypically structured piece. Though it might take a few listens to crack this nut, the rewards are well worth it, as the song is a master class in the art of tension creation and release. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the songwriting sessions that yielded this piece of music.
The second track “The Blind Prince” is by comparison a far simpler affair that yet is no less compelling than its big brother. This song too starts out at full blast with a head-banging groove in 12/8, where the song remains for its entire duration of just under three minutes. Stoner heads, these riffs are for you. The soft, smooth vocals of songwriter and guitarist Francis Roberts, layered in sumptuous depth with those of drummer Kris Calabio and bassist Andre Beller, recall early pioneers Yes, Kansas and Boston as well as prog metal legends Opeth and contemporary genre artisans Ghost. The slow build two minutes into the song which climaxes jubilantly into a particularly lethal lick is pure balls-out riffage a la Warp Riders and sends the song out with an explosive finish.
I almost want to say that “The Blind Prince” might have made for a more suitable single than “Innocent Hands,” due to its streamlined arrangement and infectious hook-after-hook structure, but to have done so would have been to omit much of what makes Old Man Wizard the unique and memorable band they’ve demonstrated themselves to be. Innocent Hands is being released digitally on August 25th and will be available as a limited 7” vinyl for the band’s upcoming tour earlier in the month. Count me very eager to hear the rest of the album to which these songs hopefully belong.
OLD MAN WIZARD TOUR DATES:
8/11 Tijuana, BC Mi Pueblito
8/13 San Francisco, CA The Hemlock
8/15 San Jose, CA The Caravan
8/17 Portland, OR The Highwater Mark
8/18 Seattle, WA The Victory Lounge
8/19 Anacortes, WA Kenelly Keys
8/20 Tacoma, WA The Valley
8/22 Los Angeles, CA The Lexington
8/23 San Diego, CA Soda Bar
Old Man Wizard is:
Francis Roberts-Guitar, Vocals)
Kris Calabio-Drums Backing Vocals
Andre Beller-Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals