So, we’ll clear up the extensive disclosure required straight away in as chatty and casual a manner as possible, in order to make you feel comfortable with my personal admissions rather than challenging your credulity. I first became aware of Sloth Metropolis because I became friends with, and occasionally jam with, their drummer, Steve McNamara. What has kept me coming back to their shows and listening to their records is, well … everything else.
Sloth live is an experience. I know writers use that type of term willy-nilly, but it’s actually valid when faced with the range and relative incongruity of the music being played almost as a soundtrack to the outfitted, anthropomorphic Sloths, Demons and assorted other mythical guests playing out ritualised acts and interdimensional combat.
On record, they don’t really have any direct peers and resist being easily assigned a single genre like prog, folk, doom, or any other four-letter metaphorical umbrella. Each Sloth record proudly boasts in its sleeve notes that ‘no guitars were harmed in the recording of this album’ and it’s a necessary caveat, as Calum Calderwood’s electric violin (put through a familiarly formed pedal board) has the ability to sound like multiple guitars, while maintaining the ability to make dramatic and ambient sounds no guitar could ever manage.
The storytelling element of their gigs is reflected in their recorded output: their first three albums, The Sloth Cycle Volume I, Origins, and Humanise (released via Bad Elephant Records), dealt with the eponymous Sloth of the Metropolis, his occult connections, and his extended journey into his ultimate triumph of becoming bipedal and no longer wearing a dressing gown all day.
The new album was approached from a slightly different developmental process to previous efforts, with less of a focus on the songs being jammed out into precise forms in a rehearsal room and more use of samples and recycling earlier free-jams. The outcome of this is fewer prog-like time changes and Zappa-like time signatures and more of a groovy, psychedelic freak-out vibe.
As if to prove this point early, opener, ‘Fungus’ clocks in at just under ten minutes while rarely straying from a locked-in beat; however, the tempo does seem to increase throughout as the intensity deepens. Calum’s violin parts, at some points purely atmospheric and at others utterly shredding over Peter Fleming’s bass, sound incredible, while Alastair Milton’s keys move to centre stage for the last two minutes. The way the band seem to naturally build and retract the music’s composite parts is the result of four people well used to reacting to and playing with each other over many years.
In terms of the overall, larger story we’re looking at here, there’s a new protagonist in the SMEU (Sloth Metropolis Extended Universe) and he lends his name to ‘Moth’, an ambitious twelve- and-a-half-minute collision of layered percussion and what sounds like some sort of hybrid between a harmonica and a set of bagpipes. The last two minutes collapse in a cacophony befitting visions of black-and-white mushroom clouds.
The moth is being pursued by some sort of private investigator obsessed with Timothy Leary. ‘Flea’ either references this guy or some sort of re- animation ceremony. This is possibly the most experimental sounding the band have ever been. Its beat, which never quite resolves itself, and a good chunk of the mix is devoted to the sound of a decaying synth seemingly spitting out white noise as some sort of defiant death rattle.
‘Bacterium’ is another track clocking in at longer than it takes to boil four eggs consecutively, but it earns its runtime. Starting with a fuzzy bassline hypnotically looping over a riff most bands would make the main hook of a song, it traverses through haunting choral sounds into an unsettling breakdown that kicks back in precisely when you would want it to. Despite its organic structure, this is the closest the band sound to the likes of Gong.
Lead single ‘Starseed’ (at least, I hope it’s the lead single – the other contender is ‘Moth’ which possibly wouldn’t fit on both sides of a traditional seven inch) is the most uptempo track on the album, giving the feeling of a primitive knees-up to celebrate emerging unscathed from the Necropolis. The pulsing rhythm and spiralling organ parts are enough to make you dance yourself into a druidic plane – part fear, part euphoria.
Is this record their best yet? Well, not quite. I still think Humanise is my favourite, but The Moth Necropolis contains enough in its five lengthy tracks to take the band on the type of directional narrative journey usually undertaken by the Sloth mascot in the live shows. If you get the chance to see them in your town, telling tales of denim axes and dusty books, you won’t regret taking it.
The Moth Necropolis is out now on Nasomi Records