I haven't heard Saint Karloff before but how can I resist that name? They hail from Oslo and play a brand of stoner rock that starts out right from the Sabbath playbook but varies considerably as it goes until it surprised me. My first impressions are that they're excellent musically, with the main musician Mads Melvold, handling guitars, bass and keyboards, presumably not all at one time. It's redundant to suggest that the band seems to be very tight, when most of it is one man recording a set of overlays in the studio, effectively playing along with himself. The other musician involved is Adam Suleiman, who contributes the drums.
Just in case Melvold holding down triple duty wasn't enough, he also handles the lead vocals and I was less sold on those. Initially, on the opener, Psychedelic Man, he comes across as somewhat like Glenn Danzig with a sore throat, though he has a cleaner, less raucous vocal reserved for the more psychedelic sections, such as when the space rock keyboards show up. I was a little taken aback by how smooth the instrumentation was and how the vocals stood in contrast, but they were never a problem and I warmed up to the contrast in time. The vocals are certainly the weakest aspect but they work nonetheless.
I liked Psychedelic Man on a first listen but I like Blood Meridian still more after it, because it's an acutely playful piece that hearkens back to other seventies bands than just the inevitably Sabbath. While the song seems nineties, the bounce of Queens of the Stone Age with the fuzz of Kyuss, it's a song that looks backwards too. There's Budgie here in how the melody is inherently built into riffs and changes. There's seventies organ that reminds of Uriah Heep. I like this one a lot.
Talking of looking back, Saint Karloff look back further than that. After a mellow interlude, Among Stone Columns, and another frenetic stoner rock song with a punk urgency, Bone Cave Escape, they shift into epic mode and trawl in Led Zeppelin for Nothing to Come, which is a peach of a song. It's acoustic Zep initially, even including a flute, with very Jimmy Page guitarwork but vocals nothing at all like Robert Plant. It builds, of course, heavying up a couple of minutes in, but, even with the more frenetic sound of the midsection, it's tempered by a less frenetic lead guitar. And, just as we get used to that, it shifts back to acoustic but remains frenetic, like utterly in your face folk music.
There's another epic to wrap up the album, Nothing to Come running seven minutes but Supralux Voyager taking up eight and a half. It opens in a similarly epic vein, but it's less hard rock and more psychedelic rock, taking the band in another tasty direction. Both these songs are highlights and I only realised at this point that the songs are generally longer than I'd expect from a commercially minded vocal stoner rock band. The rest aren't epics, but only the interlude and Death Don't Have No Mercy clock in under the five minute mark.
And, frankly, there's the biggest surprise for me, because I know this song well but in versions very unlike this one. It's a slow song for this album, but it's heavy and the vocals suggest that Melvold is shouting through a megaphone like Rudy Vallée used to do in the thirties. The song isn't as old as that, but I first heard it on the debut album by Hot Tuna, Jorma and Jack's roots-focused side band from Jefferson Airplane. That came out in 1970 and it was one of many of their covers of Rev. Gary Davis tunes. He sang blues and gospel, being ably qualified as a blind black preacher man, but he's one of my favourite guitarists. Nobody plays guitar like a blind bluesman and precisely none of the inventive intricacy they have is present on this song, which makes it very weird indeed.
Kudos to Saint Karloff though for covering such a deep cut and transforming it into something new in the process. Now let's see what you can do with Sally, Where'd You Get Your Liquor From? Kudos also for such a varied stoner rock album, shifting from seventies to nineties and from hard rock to psychedelia and touches of space rock. On first impressions, this worked as a frenetic workout but, the more I listen to it, the more it's all about the subtleties that come elsewhere. This is the third album by Saint Karloff and I'm all the more interested in hearing the previous two now.