I don’t just love Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” because it rocks. I love it for its seeming dissonance. You see, as Jimmy Page’s fingers fly all over his fretboard, John Bonham settles in for a leisurely tour around his drum kit. On paper, they should sound like they’re playing two different songs – Bonham rides a mid-tempo trance-y groove while Page is more in the proto-metal area (with bassist John Paul Jones basically following Page’s lead). But it gels in an unexpected way. It’s brilliant. The same riff in the hands of lesser musicians would likely have come out far more predictably.
Though I’ve admired this quality of Led Zeppelin for quite some time, I bring it up now because Royal Forest seem to have mastered this technique as well. Within the first seven seconds of their new album, Spillway, they announce that this will not be another comfortable indie rock record. Spectacular album opener, “Everyone Who Knows You,” seems to head in one direction with Cody Ground’s fragile voice singing over haunting keyboards. At just the wrong moment, the bass and drum sections kick in to turn the song on it’s head in a way that ultimately works perfectly. This is a record full of tension between different sections of a song, but nowhere does it work as beautifully and effortlessly as on “Everyone Who Knows You.”
Over the course of the album, Royal Forest wear many hats – something that I see as both a pro and a con. There are moments of excitement along these lines, to be sure. On “Goldwallpaper,” Royal Forest flip around the emphases during the chorus’ 16 beats to unsettle the listener’s expectations. “Almost Done” is Battles-esque in the way it combines a driving groove with jarring harmonic intervals. With “Broken Bow,” however, the band closely hews to Coldplay’s “Trouble” (which I still think is a great song), while throwing in a few rhythmic intricacies. Second track and second single from the album, “John Denver,” is like a late-period Spoon acoustic number. It’s a fantastic song, but feels weird coming straight out of the bigger and stranger “Everyone Who Knows You.”
I don’t know if my problem is the sequencing on the record, meaning that some songs just don’t sit well right alongside one another, or if I think that the record just doesn’t maintain a cohesive spirit throughout (and if that’s even a problem at all). What I do know is that Spillway finds the group improving on their earlier recordings tremendously. A lot of that is due to the rhythm section, and especially Blake Lange making a case as one of the most creative drummers in town. Somehow the songs are both more accessible and more challenging. There are familiar touchstones that help process Royal Forest’s stranger inclinations, and the record is a great indie rock album. It will undoubtedly be one of the strongest Austin releases of the year, and I’m excited to see Royal Forest’s audience grow with this one.
See Royal Forest at their album release show on July 12th at Holy Mountain!
– Carter Delloro