It’s fair to say that 2020 has been a right old shit shower for live music that you can attend as opposed to watch on the computer. It’s only July as I type this review, and already emails are coming in rescheduling shows for October, November, and even beyond into 2021. On a personal level it is a particular shame as my home town of Dundee, normally a musical desert unless you like cover bands and chart pop, was starting to develop a good underground scene thanks to promoters such as Red Crust, with the likes of Conny Ochs being booked for a local pub basement show before getting cancelled. A real kick in the stones was the scrubbing of the co-headling Howling Giant/Sergeant Thunderhoof show, but as a solid consolation comes this split between the two acts.
As concept albums go (yes, I know it’s been classified as an EP, but these two massive tracks sprawl well over 40 minutes folks) about legendary Japanese blade smiths 13th Century Masamune and 16th Century Muramasa, it would be all too easy to settle into Far Eastern stereotypes with simplistic bamboo percussion sounds and plucked strings, but instead Nashville’s own three piece fuzz masters commence proceedings with a celebration of the life story of Goro Masamune through the thoroughly Western medium of guitar, bass and drums, with skilfully added Hammond organ swirls. Starting out in the realms of the sort of Prog hard rock that Pink Floyd once delivered some four decades ago, the musical story just builds and grows through a series of assured set pieces that whilst individually distinctive flow one into another to deliver the sort of track so many less capable bands would simply muddle through. Instead Howling Giant guide their contribution to soaring peaks of pumping hard rock into gentle shallows of introspective Prog, but never once dropping the quality. Indeed, if they owned a time machine to go back to the 1970’s they have the sort of sound that would have had “Whispering” Bob Harris destroying his stage name on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ with eardrum blasting screams of praise.
By the time that Howling Giant finish and Sergeant Thunderhoof take over at the twenty minute mark to tell the tale of Sengo Muramasa things get altogether heavier, keyboards disappearing and being replaced by harder riffs to frame the clean soaring vocals of Dan Flitcroft, a sound that they and bands such as Enos have made their own over the years, avoiding the occasionally jarring (to this music fan reviewer’s ear anyway) overly trying efforts of such acts as Mastodon. Yes, there is a massive musical exploration that is the purview of only the most capable musicians, but Sergeant Thunderhoof manage to avoid straying into the realms of pretension with an obvious regard for, and joy in, the music they create. In the hands of lesser acts the complex structure they create could sound overly self-conscious and indeed pompous, but guided by the hands of these West Country wizards the whole track has a cohesiveness that could so easily be ruined by bands of without their ability and skill. Indeed, for this listener, by the time their twenty minute contribution to the album was over, I was amazed that so much time had passed, such was the way I was absorbed into the sonic flow.
As concept albums go, and again, it’s not an EP at over 40 minutes, this is a bold and successful endeavour, particularly as it covers a subject that is not likely to be immediately apparent to many, choosing as the bands do to tell the tale of the forging of steel in a way that is every bit as philosophical as it is metallurgical. If you want a simple head banging CD, this is not for you; if you want to be enthralled and absorbed by musicianship, click the links below and splash some cash.