True Widow is a band I’ve kept my eye on for a while, trying desperately to draw attention to the unique and seemingly obvious synthesis they’ve created. Think about it: combining the slow, bluesy tempos and bends of stoner metal with the equally glacial, texturally appeasing volume of shoegaze seems like a win-win of disparate cross-pollination between two far-reaching musical enclaves. It also seems like something that Pitchfork would snatch up and claim for their own. Recently, we’ve seen the same accolades and success dumped upon the similar story of Deafheaven for their appropriately righteous fusion of black metal and shoegaze (although coming out strikingly similar to the whole post-rock/screamo Portraits of Past scene on the mid-90’s California strip). How is it that True Widow ducked the popular radar for so long? I always tell people they sound like Sleep and Ride blacking out together in an idling car. It may have to do with the inconsistent touring, mainly staying close to their home of Dallas, Texas (we all have day jobs, dude), or it may just be that they release almost identical records, from 2008’s True Widow to their most recent release, Circumambulation.
True Widow always had an easy demeanor for music that could be filed away in the metal shelves, steering toward passive, catatonic chanting over theatrical screams or the soaring Ozzy-fare. Vocalist Dan Phillips eases us into familiarity on unstable grounds, much akin to seeing a friendly co-worker at a Slayer concert. Circumambulation opens with the plodding “Creeper,” with Phillips cooing the details of a murder scene as the band takes up their usual roles. Drummer “Slim” Starks plays the Ulrich, making repetitive percussion that could pass for Neu!-inspired motorick if you doubled the BPM and used a washy riveted ride cymbal to enhance the dreamy aspect of their sound. If anything, Circumambulation is a vehicle for the emerging talent of bassist Nicole Estill, who plays duet foil to Phillips on “Four Teeth” and helms the lurching “Trollstigen,” which serves as the darkest centerpiece to any of True Widow’s records. Estill has already shown her heft, leading several standout tracks on 2011’s As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Centre to the Circumference of the Earth (I know, let’s just move on), and this record proves to be the distillation of her talents. After traversing through the somewhat pointlessly instrumental “I:M:O” (it’s essentially the earlier “S:H:S” without vocals), the record closes with its two strongest tracks: the undeniably hooky “HW:R” and the intriguing “Lungr”. Both tracks feature Phillips and Estill trading and harmonizing echoes while driving towards an unseen point on the horizon, and especially on “Lungr” do we feel a new sense of impending dread not found elsewhere in the True Widow canon.
It seems that the main complaint to be made with Circumambulation is that the real surprises don’t emerge until the very edge of the record. In their defense, I can’t think of another band in recent memory whose formula seemed as perfect from the beginning, and making their first major label release on Relapse an exercise in indulgent experimentation would be at best misrepresentation and at worst alienating. True Widow does one thing very, very well and I would be personally woebegone if they chose now to release a “brainy” record. That being said, Circumambulation is less addictive than True Widow, and on the whole, less adventurous than A.H.A.H.H.F.C.C.E. or their excellent I.N.O. EP, which leaves us with nothing to really build upon as an audience. Perhaps if the instrumentation were mixed a little less uniformly, it would not meld together into what seems like one 45-minute long, doomy “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
True Widow seems to play their cards pretty close to the denim vest. I mean, the names of the majority of their songs are indecipherable acronyms sutured together by commas and other typographical errors. I do believe that Circumambulation will be the record in which they find a wider audience, kind of like a stoner-rock Loaded. With a proper release (and more importantly, a proper distribution), the band has set the foundation in which they can hopefully build upon into something grander than what they already are for me. Rest assured I’ll be waiting, and they’ve at least had the decency to write me a record I can hibernate to until that day arrives.