Viral videos may not be a common vehicle for heavy rock bands, but metal fans got their first introduction to the tuneful bludgeoning of Portland quartet Red Fang when the hilarious clip for "Prehistoric Dog" made the rounds in 2008. Who could deny a battle between the group's grizzled, beer-shotgunning members — clad in armor forged from Pabst and Tecate cans — and a troop of LARPing Dungeons & Dragons nerds? The video's climax of cartoonish dismemberment and decapitation matched the comic mayhem of the Black Knight duel from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Entertaining as the video was, what fueled the repeat watching that racked up over 1.5 million YouTube views was the clip's locomotive anthem about a pack of interstellar canines invading Earth to "erase the human race." An infectious mix of crushing yet catchy riffs and earworm vocal melodies, the tune announced the arrival of a new contender for the stoner-rock crown. Where established Georgia mavericks Mastodon and Baroness were taking a more ambitious approach to modern metal, here was a group distilling similarly dizzying guitar heroics and tricky time signatures into a pulverizing pop context. Five years later, Red Fang sounds poised to claim that crown, armed with the ferocious ear candy of its latest salvo, Whales and Leeches.
Red Fang didn't stumble ass-backwards into a formula for eminently accessible stoner jams. Guitarists Bryan Giles and David Sullivan, bassist Aaron Beam, and drummer John Sherman were all seasoned veterans who had logged time in a variety of outfits before joining forces in 2006. "It was just like all these old dogs finally coming together," laughs Giles during a phone interview as the group travels between tour stops. Pooling its collective talents, the crew set about crafting a style of immediate, visceral rock inspired by '70s proto metal, '80s punk like Black Flag and Portland legends the Wipers, and the sludgy ballistics of the Melvins and early Queens of the Stone Age.
Red Fang's self-titled 2009 debut for Sargent House caught the ears of both the global headbanging community and noted metal label Relapse Records. The quartet's sophomore effort, Murder the Mountains for Relapse two years later, further refined its sound with the production help of fellow Portlander and member of the Decemberists Chris Funk. Adding depth and polish without tempering the raw fury of such standout tracks as "Hank Is Dead" and "Dirt Wizard," the album showcased the compelling counterpoint between Giles' gruff howl, Beam's more melodic vocals, and the group's gift for writing ear-pleasing, interlocking riffs.
The band's hectic touring schedule led to a shortage of time leading up to the sessions for Whales and Leeches, but the pressure seems to have lent the new material a sense of urgency. "We still have yet to figure out an effective way to write while we're on the road," says Giles. "This record, we were just hell-bent on getting it done in the time frame we gave ourselves. These songs have a little more of a punk aesthetic."
Teaming up once again with Funk, Red Fang blasts through a string of concise, hook-laden tunes that make for one of the most savagely contagious album sides in recent memory. Opener "DOEN" — an acronym for "Dead of Endless Night" — was inspired by Beam's disappointment with the horror movie 30 Days of Night and delivers more violence and menace in three minutes than the entire mediocre vampire flick did. The radio-ready "Blood Like Cream" matches Beam's memorable vocal melody with surreal, grotesque lyrics inspired by sleep-deprived early fatherhood over a loping thicket of guitars and Sherman's snare-punishing groove.
While past efforts simply alternated between melodious (if no less heavy) Beam-fronted tracks and the more dissonant punk ragers sung by Giles, Whales and Leeches finds the band combining the distinct styles to great effect. The singers share choruses and swap verses on doomy juggernaut "Voices of the Dead" and the pile-driving "1516," a song that echoes Mastodon's frantic "Blood and Thunder" with a far more enticing vocal hook.
The new album also stands as the band's first to feature a guest musician sharing both vocals and songwriting credit. After recording the lumbering, seven-minute epic "Dawn Rising," both Beam and Giles were stumped for vocal ideas. "We started fantasizing about the possibilities. 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could get Mike Scheidt from YOB?'" remembers Giles. "Luckily, we're friends with him and he was nice enough to do it."
Laying down leads and harmonies, including a call-and-response between his natural ringing tenor and a strangulated, Dave Mustaine-style voice, Scheidt's remarkable performance elevates the baleful, Sabbath-esque dirge to one of the album's high points. "I'm just stunned at his talent," says Giles. "The only disappointment is we can't fit him in the van and bring him along to sing that song on every tour we do."
So can the quartet make the leap to the next level on the strength of Whales and Leeches? With another comical music clip already in the works — "The idea made me laugh, so hopefully the video will make other people laugh," says Giles with a chuckle — and a daunting schedule of U.S. and European tour dates already booked well into 2014, the old dogs in Red Fang look to make a serious run for it in the coming year.