Soft Opening, a band from Asheville, N.C., demands patience from its audience. The four-piece group started off playing crushingly heavy, slow doom metal in the style of Neurosis; their early demo recordings, made in the months after they first started playing together two years ago, were all wind-up and no delivery, building tension through long songs and repetitive riffing but offering very little cathartic release.
Their latest recordings—some live clips from a show at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, as well as some scattered studio material—show the band drifting into outer space, following the same kind of droning, cosmic head trip laid down by Hawkwind, Amon Düül II, and early Pink Floyd. They're still a heavy band, but the droning riffs, krautrock tempos, and Hepler's fuzzy guitar solos provide a lumbering forward momentum that Soft Opening didn't have in its earliest incarnations.
"I guess we definitely would come from more of a metal background," says guitarist/vocalist Jamie Hepler, who credits bands like Earth, Spacemen 3, the Black Angels, and Dead Meadow for inspiring the new sound. "It's pretty heavy, I guess. It started off being more of a stoner metal kind of band. We've definitely backed off that a lot. The new record we're just finishing up is more melodic. It's more psychedelic than it is heavy, for the most part."
The change in direction comes from the addition, six months ago, of organist Ross Gentry to the band's original guitar-bass-drums lineup. Gentry has since left the band, but he's been replaced by Tony Kukucka, who also plays organ. (Drummer Tony Plichta and bassist Patrick Jordan round out the roster.)
"It adds ambience and texture," Hepler says of the organ's presence in Soft Opening's music. "There's a lot of sustained, droney things that the guitar and bass can wring out for a while, but it's nice to have something that doesn't really die unless you want it to."
Tripped-out and heavy head music isn't the kind of thing that's usually associated with Asheville, which is more familiar for its jam bands and Americana acts.
"Yeah, there's definitely a scene for that here," says Hepler, who grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to Asheville after college. "Sometimes I think that people have a blown-up concept of exactly how big that is here, but there's definitely some truth to it, for sure."
There's also a burgeoning community for heavy and experimental music.
"It's really supportive," Hepler says. "It's kind of hard to say. It's better than I thought it would be. Asheville's got a weird music scene. It can be good and bad."
Two bands from there—Ahleuchatistas and Villages, ex-Soft Opening organist Gentry's solo project—played at Knoxville's Big Ears festival in 2010. Hepler says his band has hopes for pushing the scene forward; Soft Opening has just finished mixing and mastering its as-yet-untitled first official album, which should be out in the spring. After that, they'll be stretching out of the Southeast for a big tour.
"We'll definitely be hitting some cities we haven't messed with too much," he says. "We've come to Knoxville a good bit, and Lexington and Chattanooga and Atlanta, those cities we play a lot. But we'll go up to New York and do a full East Coast thing when the record comes out."