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Album review: Windhand approaches the mainstream with 'Eternal Return'

Windhand's been a buzz band for a while, at least in doom-rock circles, but their albums have all seemed to be missing something that made them something more than just a slightly-above-average group. They've had the sludgy tempos, the woody distorted-guitar tones, and the obsession with all things occult, but the songs were lacking focus, and the band's albums were overlong and too samey from moment to moment.

On their latest, "Eternal Return," the Richmond, Va., quartet have made a significant step forward. While the record is still too lengthy at 63 minutes, Windhand has wisely decided to put the vocals of Dorthia Cottrell front and center, and that has made a huge difference in the way the band's music comes across. For the first time, Windhand now sounds like a melodic, vocal-focused band, and it's a great evolution.

It's funny, because they really don't sound much different than they did on their 2015 release "Grief's Infernal Flower." The Electric Wizard-like guitar tone is the same. The clanging, clattering drums are there. But Cottrell is the focal point, rather than just another element swimming in the mix. Instead of her vocals being a color in a painting, they become the subject of the painting itself, and this change is very welcome. It will also mean the group's music is suddenly more palatable to a much wider potential audience.

Suddenly, the band sounds much more confident. The hooks in the choruses of opening songs "Halcyon" and "Grey Garden" are balanced, repetitive and appealing. "I wish you would," Cottrell repeatedly sings on the chorus of the former. "Isn't it all a mess / soon it'll go away," goes the one on the latter. Simple phrases, the meaning of which isn't even necessarily apparent even after several listens — well, that's just how good rock 'n' roll works, sometimes. It sounds good, it sings well, it carries weight, and it can mean different things to different listeners.

Really, even though it's tar-sticky doom metal, it resembles Nirvana quite a lot, as producer Jack Endino must doubtlessly have noticed during the sessions. Cottrell's melodies have a sweetness to them that Kurt Cobain would probably have appreciated. When she gets quieter, as on the mostly-acoustic "Pilgrim's Rest," she takes on a breathier tone that isn't miles removed from the style that Chan Marshall of Cat Power uses.

The band behind Cottrell is good, but sometimes workmanlike. The riffs are heavy, the leads are trippy and melodic, the drums and bass are a solid foundation, but rarely is there a riff that could compete for dominance with the vocal on any given song. Even on the 10-plus-minute monoliths "Eyeshine" and "Feather," the singing is the thing that captures the ear.

The funny thing that should be noted is that Cottrell isn't some kind of mindblowing vocalist, but she's stepped forward on this record and demanded attention of the listener in a fresh way. The vocal harmonies that she lays in, her cadence, her position in the mix: it's a new mode for her, and she owns it without begging for attention in any fashion.

On "Eternal Return," Windhand has very nearly achieved radio-friendliness, although it's hard to imagine the kind of radio station that would play them. The same could've been said about Nirvana once upon a time, however, so who knows?

Artist: Windhand

Album: "Eternal Return"

Produced by: Jack Endino

Website: www.windhand.com

Personnel: Dorthia Cottrell (vocals), Parker Chandler (bass), Ryan Wolfe (drums), Garrett Morris (guitar)

Click here to listen to the album.