Secret Alphabets (Small Stone)
by Brian Varney
Based on the advance word, the band name, the title, and the cover art, I kinda had the idea that this was gonna be trippy and psychedelic like the very fine last coupla Los Natas records. This is not to say that there aren’t trippy moments here, ’cause songs like “The Combination” and “One More Year” are full of spacy, echoing noises that bounce off to nowhere and come back as refracted seagull cries, etc. But, on the whole, this is a hard rock record with occasional psychedelic dalliances, something I might’ve expected had I known going in that Greenleaf is a Dozer side project. Of course, had I known that, I might not’ve listened at all since the cloner rock alarm bells would’ve driven me far, far away.
For those not in the know, Dozer are one of the main bands who have prompted wiseguys to re-christen the stoner rock genre “cloner rock,” such is the similarity of their sound to Kyuss. However, Greenleaf is a side project, so while the “Oh yeah!” dialogue bubble appeared next to my head when I made the Dozer connection, this doesn’t sound like Dozer, which, in my estimation, is a good thing. I know plenty of folks who like Dozer just fine, and I don’t think they’re odious or anything like that, but why would I need one of their albums when I have the Kyuss stuff?
So if this isn’t a psych album and not a Kyuss clone, what is it? More than anything, it sounds like an attempt at making a “lost” classic rock album. The production is stuffed with Leslies and Hammond organs and other such neat-sounding stuff meant to create a 1974 vibe, and the songs are packed with overt nods to that glorious era. There are also moments of outright copycatting (the main riff on “No Time Like Right Now!” is an unflinching BTO lift, the unabashed Paul Stanley vocal mimicry on “Never Right”). And while I have no problem with borrowed riffs – one of the cornerstones of rock ‘n’ roll itself being theft – I do think it belies a lack of imagination to steal the main riff of a song like “Roll on Down the Highway,” a song that anyone who’s ever listened to classic rock radio has probably heard a thousand times or so.
Although originality is a generally fraudulent concept in the grand scheme of rock music, imagination is vitally important, and these sorts of thefts point to a fairly earthbound sensibility, which is the same sort of thing that kept and will continue to keep Dozer from being anything but a pretty good copycat band. Greenleaf is hopefully the first stirring of an awakening from this self-imposed bondage, a desire to reach for something beyond, to begin to communicate not in the common tongue which they now speak, but in a language built from the secret alphabet of which the title speaks.
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