When the Richmond, Va., band Windhand released its self-titled debut album in 2012, almost every review compared the band to Black Sabbath and noted the album's thick, druggy throwback atmosphere. The music is suffocatingly, morbidly slow and heavy, with subterranean bass shrouded in fuzzy guitar distortion and eerie vocals that are buried so deep in the mix that they become ethereal, wordless incantations. There's an Old World vibe—shadows of haunted houses, Hammer horror movies, and Victorian occultism—filtered through the dark haze of a '70s drug cult.
A lot of bands explore similar territory these days, but few of them come by their old-school credibility as thoroughly as Windhand. Most of the band's members—vocalist Dorthia Cottrell, guitarists Asechiah Bogdan and Garrett Morris, bassist Parker Chandler, and drummer Ryan Wolfe—have been active in Richmond's metal scene since the '90s; they're old enough to have heard classic albums by doom-metal predecessors Candlemass, Trouble, and Cathedral when they were released. And everything the band has recorded so far—a 2010 demo, last year's debut, two tracks for a split EP with fellow Richmond metalheads (and Chandler's other band) Cough, and the double LP Soma, scheduled for release on mega-indie label Relapse in September—has been done by the band members themselves on a haphazard collection of antiquated gear that most other retro metal bands would sneer at.
"It's really archaic, to be honest with you," says guitarist Garrett Morris. "I have an old 16-track machine—only 14 of the tracks work—and a bunch of cheap microphones. I've had the equipment for years. I just had it around to do demos and stuff, and we'd record ourselves when we could. The equipment is all old, archaic analog equipment—I've had a lot of this stuff kicking around since the '90s that I've picked up here and there.
"The most expensive part is trying to track down tape. It's insane now—you used to be able to get a roll of tape for $25, now it's like $100 or more a roll."
But the band has quickly overcome its humble origins; the acclaim earned by Windhand last year gave the band an immediate reputation as one of America's most promising heavy bands, and made Soma one of the most anticipated metal albums of the year.
Soma is, in fact, an almost perfect payoff. Everything that made the debut great is still there, and just a little bit better. Cottrell's vocals are more prominent but no less haunting; the rhythm section is more dynamic; the riffs are more intricate, without sacrificing the massive density of the guitar tone; and the songwriting is subtly more sophisticated, reflecting a wider range of influences.
"It's definitely moving in another direction," Morris says of the upcoming album. "I don't want to give away too much, but there's some acoustic stuff on the new record. There's more of the heavy stuff, too, but it's not really like a doom record. It's more of a heavy rock record. It's still got noisy guitars and whatnot, but hopefully expanding on what we did with the split and the first record. It's definitely more textured, for sure. It came out way better than we thought it was going to."
"Expanding" is right—the five songs on Windhand average more than eight minutes in length, and two songs stretch past 10 minutes, but the 75-minute Soma takes on even more epic proportions.
"Yeah, the songs are just really long for the most part," Morris says. "The next record's actually going to be a double LP, and there's only six songs on it. There's a pretty long one on there—it's over 20 minutes. It fills up one side of the record."
The new, less explicitly heavy metal direction the band is heading in is something Morris and his bandmates have thought about since forming the band in 2008. They even chose the name Windhand, from Alchemy and Mysticism: The Hermetic Museum, a history of occult symbols and images, in order to keep their options open.
"We just wanted a name that maybe didn't say, okay, this is definitely a metal band. It's kind of open to interpretation, so if people hear our name but haven't heard us, they don't automatically assume we're a metal band."