Much ink has been spilled on how early grunge embraced Sabbath as eagerly as west coast punk bands like Black Flag and the Wipers, but then Nirvana came along, and suddenly the new brass ring had little use for vestigial doom traits beyond the fuzzy wall of amps and kinda-out-of-it malaise. Tad and the Melvins kept it real but couldn't make enough of a living to appease their major label masters, so back to the underground they went, along with any semblance of momentum the heavier side of grunge had built to that point. Developing simultaneously clear on the other end of the West Coast, a number of bands with similar affinities for Sabbath and old deep cut classic rock traded the heroin for weed and psychedelics, arriving at a diametrically opposite take from the same basic elements: stoner rock.
Though the little known (outside stoner completists, anyway) Yawning Man are often cited as the band to kick off the Palm Desert Scene – ground zero for this "stoner" or desert rock stuff – history has handed the torch to Josh Homme and his bandmates in both Kyuss and, later, Queens of the Stone Age for laying down the blueprint that most bands since have chosen as the median standard from which to chart their (often slight) deviations.
Goatsnake were one of those bands that followed in the Kyuss mold – a classic Man's Ruin signing if there ever was one – but in spite of being ostensibly based out of Los Angeles, they never quite found themselves on the receiving end of the red carpet, likely due to each member's origin in a notable band that had been based elsewhere: The Obsessed (Maryland), Scream (Virginia) and Burning Witch (Seattle) [interestingly, Scott Reeder of The Obsessed, who played on the later Kyuss albums after that band broke up, would go on to perform bass duties on the most recent Goatsnake release to date, the Trampled Under Hoof EP].
Black Age Blues, being the first full length Goatsnake recording in 15 years, and the most recent music in any format since 2004, would therefore seem to be poised to reclaim the long overdue respect that Goatsnake never entirely delivered on during their initial half-decade run. Unfortunately it doesn't quite hold up under the weight of inevitable expectations. In an era where doom and sludge has come much more into favor than old school desert rock, Goatsnake have nonetheless chosen to go back to their earlier, boogie-saturated stoner ethos, for the most part jettisoning the sweatier Sabbath workouts of their latter period.
There are a few cuts like "Graves" and "Black Age Blues" that still have walloping doses of that foreboding doom crunch, but on the latter in particular it still comes off like a more accessible band such as C.O.C. channeling their inner Sabbath than any kind of firm doom commitment. The band have always mixed it up a bit (even the venerated Flower of Disease had playful jam tunes like "Easy Greasy" and "A Truckload of Mamma's Muffins"), but with Black Age Blues they pretty much split the difference right down the middle, with charging, hook-friendly rockers taking center stage throughout.
The approach puts an unfair burden on singer Pete Stahl who, like Kyuss' John Garcia, has never been an objectively great singer, often relying on a favorable soundboard mix and just sheer chemistry to put himself across (he's got the pipes, they're just undermined somewhat by a love-it-or-hate-it nasal intonation). On Black Age Blues he's front-and-center for the full 47-minute duration, which is just a bit more than can reasonably be asked out of his talents. Speaking of Garcia, there are several songs here that sound uncomfortably close to those Kyuss influences: "Jimi's Gone" for one, but get a load of "Elevated Man", which seems to deliberately go for a Blues for the Red Sky vibe:
"Another River to Cross" is one of the few really great songs on the album, but even here this seems to have been largely patched together from the fruits of earlier recording sessions, at least according to the press release (including "The River" from Flower of Disease). Basically what we have here with Black Age Blues is not so much the fully realized, classic comeback album that we've come to expect in recent years from the likes of Carcass and At the Gates, but more of a transitory promise for the future… assuming there actually is one, as Greg Anderson has a label to run in Southern Lord, not to mention he's had a restless history of not sticking with the same project for too long. Which at the end of the day seems to be the problem with Black Age Blues: four veteran musicians operating near the peak of their powers, but under circumstances that manage to feel rushed and, frankly, a little half-baked.