Dogbane - Residual Alcatraz 3.5/5
1. Ride the serpent
2. Born to die
5. God forgive you
6. Devil in the dark
7. Burning in the light
8. Residual Alcatraz
9. Fire and brimstone
10. How the mighty have fallen
Dogbane’s debut CD, ‘Residual Alcatraz’, saw the light of day late last year on North Carolina’s Heaven and Hell Records, to relatively little fanfare. It’s not altogether hard to understand why. The band name is sort of obscure and ambiguous; however, the name Dogbane becomes much cooler when one realizes that dogbane (otherwise known as Indian hemp) is a poisonous plant with little white flowers. Same goes for the unusual cover art, which features a flaming skull surrounded by, you guessed it, innocuous looking plants with little white flowers. A trickier conundrum facing Dogbane is the difficulty of pigeonholing their sound. They’ve got one foot squarely in the traditional metal camp (with influences from the NWOBHM, old-school denim-and-leather U.S. metal, and even a touch of thrash), and other foot in the rockin’ twin-guitar doom style epitomized by Trouble. Perhaps the most apt band comparison that comes to mind is Pennsylvania’s Argus, but even that analogy is loose-fitting, inasmuch as Dogbane’s songs tend to be more compact and their vocals are higher pitched (often reminiscent of Helstar’s James Rivera in his clean mid-range, minus those patented air-raid shrieks).
What you’re left with is a band that seems perfectly content to rock out on its own terms, trends and narrow little stylistic boxes be damned. Good for Dogbane. I’ll be honest: The results can be a bit jarring sometimes, as the doomier tracks sit side-by-side on the running order with more traditional U.S. metal numbers. Perhaps the best example of this is the whipsawing transition from the uptempo ripper “Devil in the dark” to the 9-minute sludgy lugubrious doom jam of “Burning in the light” to the speedy “Residual Alcatraz”. Overall, though, Dogbane’s approach works well, and is oddly cohesive, in much the same way as Trouble was circa their ‘Manic frustration’ platter (which stitched together strange bedfellows like “Fear” and “Hello strawberry skies”). I have tremendous respect for Dogbane for pursuing their own creative vision, without kowtowing to whatever the flavor of the week might be. And there is a market for this music, particularly amongst those of us who worship at the altar of the almighty riff. These songs feature towering monolithic riffs aplenty in that time-honored Iommi tradition, unsullied by time or “progress”.
A bit of Internet surfing confirms that ‘Residual Alcatraz’ has been well-received by the critics; however, there is one recurring comment that seems to hit the mark. As enjoyable as the CD is, the songwriting doesn’t seem quite developed or catchy enough for the tunes to stick. It’s an absurdly crowded marketplace out there. To stand out amongst your peers, you’ve not only got to have an enticing sound (which Dogbane definitely do), but you must have the killer songs to go with it. I’m not sure ‘Residual Alcatraz’ is quite at that level yet. That said, I for one am content with this CD as is, and look forward to hearing where Dogbane go from here as they hone and sharpen their craft.
I would be remiss not to include a postscript. Barely a few months after ‘Residual Alcatraz’ was released, Dogbane guitarist David Ellenburg passed away suddenly at the age of 48. Obviously, this is a tragic loss for his family, his band, and the metal world. ‘Residual Alcatraz’ is the man’s musical legacy. So when you listen to the CD, crank it loud, let Ellenburg’s mighty riffs carry you away, and give thanks that he was able to leave his mark before being taken away far too young. Cheers, David, and rest in peace.
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