Jess And The Ancient Ones - The Horse and Other Weird Tales - (8/10)
Published on November 29, 2017
Finnish drug mysticists and eldritch worshippers Jess and the Ancient ones have made a name for themselves among metalheads due to a mixture of connections to Demilich through now ex-guitarist Antti Boman but more substantial is their suggestively moody sound and trippy occult lyricism that fans of both The Devil’s Blood and In Solitude alike would enjoy. 2012 saw them debut with their hard rockin’ and at times almost traditional heavy metal esque self-titled debut but two EP’s and one 2015 follow-up later and they had become a much more eclectic band with lavish floating harmonies echoing like distant prayers amidst a wash of swelling keyboards and titular singer Jess’ wild, husky midrange. It was an award winning approach and they’ve kept the basic gist of it two years later with the oddly named The Horse and Other Weird Tales though I would be a far cry to say this is the exact same band.
For starters, a quick look at the track times hints at a change of approach with their shortest songs on average. The majority of them are in the two to three minute range, possessing only two epic length tracks both seven minutes in length. Musically, their sound is considerably more compact, featuring the same general building blocks but delivered in a slimmed down, streamlined fashion. The misty waves of amorphous textures over steady percussion hasn’t changed and in fact, I’ll say that the guitar is more active in this case especially in the second case of the album. While I would hesitate to call it aggressive or particularly metallic, compared to their last two albums it uses a wider range of technique to harmonize and counterpoint the singing. Not with say power chords, tremolo picking, or grating dissonance but carefully picked clusters of notes and some gorgeous lead phrasing that hovers by every smooth curling note of Jess’ voice, easily switching between playful strumming and almost jangling cleanly picked parts. In a way it’s akin to a fusion of both the self-titled and Second Psychedelic Coming: The Aquarius Tapes. It has the former’s straightforward direction and the latter’s mad whispering hovering about like some unseen demonic presence.
Of course, a great band relies on more than one musician to carry it through. Opening number “Death is the Doors” saunters in with the seductive charisma we’ve come to expect of the band, featuring every member firing on all cylinders. A swaggering bassline, emphatic keyboard chords, some soaring vocal lines and the guitars going utterly bonkers in the chorus; they’ve distilled everything great about them into the most compact package. This perhaps exemplifies their new sound; rather than implicit, it’s very direct or outright bombastic, more conventionally rock and rollicking with how compact, catchy, and concise it all flies towards the listener. Excluding the interlude track “Radio Aquarius”, the two epic tracks, “You and Eyes” and “Anyway the Minds Flow” are the sole slower numbers here. The first of them is almost reminiscent of The Doors with its semi-jammy verses where guitar and keyboard dance together, mimicking and diverging gradually as it approaches a fever pitch before entering longer mellow break that leads into a mad dash towards the end. While they were never quite a prog band, their lengthier numbers almost hint at it and if that song wasn’t already entering such territory, “Anyway…” pushes this even harder with its sharply sectioned multi-part layout, almost entering territory like a gloomier Jethro Tull (sans flute).
In a way those two songs are a bit of an awkward fit on an otherwise straightforward album full of short and highly workable singles. Take “Return to Hallucinate” with its gently rising falling arpeggios on guitar and keyboard, bursting at the seams with ear-worm hooks. “Your Exploding Heads” lowers the intensity with a soft-loud dynamic, stacking subdued verses against the teasing, jaunty chorus and giving Jess quite a bit of room to demonstrate her vocal finesse and raw character. “Minotaure” features eerier sustained keyboard tones in its lead-ins to the chorus before some playful plinking and shrill organ chirping both playing off of the anthemic vocal cadences. Overall, the songwriting present isn’t as distinct as it was on the prior album with many songs being spirited and full of energy but lacking specific structural configuration and thematic emphasis. However, it demonstrates that it’s 100% possible for them to work with this and right this kind of immediately gripping rock.
However, where they need to improve is in variety of tempo and harmony. The songs individually are excellent but listened to in one go can feel like them riffing on a fairly narrow set of ideas. It’s nowhere near the monotony of gas masked war metal, Shrapnel Shred style tech death, Entombed clones, or slambro death thankfully but it does get notable the further the album carries on. However, the two seven minute tracks also are interesting; while not as consistent in their delivery as those of prior albums, they take quite a few more successful gambles in terms of layout and pacing. I doubt we’re going to see this band turn into the “occult rock” equivalent of Genesis or Yes but the potential for growth into heavily layered tracks split up into smaller chapters is there and if they can keep it at least at the level of this album, it could be their magnum opus in the works. For now, this is definitely the weakest of their discography but still far from a blunder or a misfire.