Renowned for repetitive and lengthy spaced out, drone-rock psychedelic jams, Wooden Shjips are gradually bringing down their average track length to more digestible durations. Back To Land marks a further step in this direction after 2011’s West indicated this was perhaps the future, as bandleader Erik ‘Ripley’ Johnson continues to fine-tune his songwriting skills.
When Johnson relocated to Portland, Oregon a year ago he began listening to his old ’70s records again and that influence permeates throughout the band’s latest release. The ‘Velvet Underground meets Spacemen 3’ vibes are still present but with less emphasis on the desire to create mind-melting space-rock drones for as long as possible, the sound appearing more honed than before.
Like the 2012 album Circles from Johnson’s other project – Moon Duo, with wife Sanae Yamada – Back To Land hits the ground running with one of its strongest tracks, the outstanding title track and single. Switching between the E and A chords continuously in a similar fashion to Ash’s Jesus Says (albeit Ash use A and D) an instant groove is created, supplemented by the same repeated chords from Nash Whalen’s organ. Set against a tight rhythm section backdrop provided by Dusty Jermier (bass) and Omar Ahsanuddin (drums), Johnson’s indecipherable vocals mutter away but the real highlight is Johnson’s excellent guitar noodling that support the ’70s influence that helped inspire him when writing this album.
Second track Ruins is built around another constant presence, this time a faster locked-in guitar groove. After the lyrics have been mumbled (which in all honesty could be blabbering on about anything), another sublime but short guitar solo bursts forth before psychedelic Doors-like organ floats into the mix to provide the space-rock element. More excellent reverb-heavy guitaring then leads the song to its conclusion and the more up-tempo drumbeat of Ghouls then pounces. This time the basis of the track is repetitive spacey organ notes furnished with washes of Jimi Hendrix-sounding psychedelic guitar.
The slower These Shadows sounds like long-time adversaries (if the misrepresentation of Dig! is to be believed) The Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre jamming together, with the underlying fuzzy guitar similar to Come Down-era Dandy’s and Anton Newcombe-like vocals working alongside one of his better guitar solo’s.
Vaguely recollecting the tasty riff from Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, the ’70s influence is again present for In The Roses. Keyboards play a prominent part in a similar way to fellow American psychedelic rockers The Black Angels with their mellotron but Johnson’s guitar meanderings once more steal the limelight.
Other Stars is possibly the most space-rock sounding number with slow flanger effect creating an other-wordly atmosphere alongside a pulsating rhythm beat and repetitive organ chords. The less prominent but ever present guitar solo this time leans more towards a spaced out wah-wah sound, forming another blissful moment that begs to be listened to with a joint the size of the Camberwell Carrot from Withnail & I.
The same slow flanger effect continues for Servants: another solid locked-in groove is peppered with blasts of echo and delay guitar before the album draws to a conclusion with the more reflective sounding Everybody Knows. A repeated keyboard line drives the track along, reaching its pinnacle with an excellent guitar solo that fits like a glove.
Wooden Shjips are generally tagged with that space-rock label a little too heavily; nothing here recalls the Hawkwind-like spacey blips and bleeps that label-mates White Hills often favour, for instance. Their strengths lie within rocky, repetitive grooves and guitar wizardry, with Johnson’s own appearance aptly resembling that of a wizard. Tellingly, the band only once surpass a running time of six minutes on Back To Land. In this case, less is more.