Though they have always rode a very thin (red) line, it’s safe to say that Red Fang have finally reached an exact point of equilibrium between sludgy, riffy metal and what people like to call “hard rock.” Where once the Portlanders’ songs felt like stiff cocktails of classic Motorhead crossed with The Obsessed, lately they have become more aligned with their experimental brethren in Clutch and Queens of the Stone Age–still beefy and heavy in isolated spots, but steadily evolving from the straight-ahead heavy metal that marked their early records. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Like Mastodon’s post-2009 catalog, melody-centered song structures dominate Red Fang’s 2016 LP, Only Ghosts. The wordless chorus of “Cut It Short” feels like an abrupt change, something they never would have included on previous records–even though it’s not terribly different from what they have done in the past.
Whether it’s the tricky, spliced timing of “No Air” or the NWOBHM-style interlocking guitar harmonies in “Shadows,” Red Fang finds a litany of ways to demonstrate their ambition and challenge listeners over the course of their new record. This is a pretty stark contrast from just a few short years ago when crushing skulls and/or beers seemed to be the primary focus of the group’s creative energy. Red Fang have certainly shaken off a collective one-track mindedness and doubled-down on writing unique, distinct songs that constitute the West Coast quartet’s own stamp on this corner of stoner rock. Black Sabbath and Saint Vitus are awesome, but who wants to be an imitator forever, right? It’s about time Red Fang struck out in their own. But with their songwriting direction inevitably went some of the raw ferocity that got them noticed in the first place. A few different bands have gone down this road and succeeded: Baroness, Coliseum, and, once again, Clutch spring to mind. But this type of transformation is always risky within metal circles, especially for a band like Red Fang, who seem to pride themselves on their trademark style of no frills, party-boy sloppiness.
So, with this said, the crisp, clear sound of the vocals on opener “Flies” might take you by surprise if you are at all familiar with group; even the extra stank they throw on the bass guitar comes through very crisply and pristinely. They have tightened up their sound to the point that they now sound similar to Pepper Keenan-era Corrosion of Conformity–everything down to the lyrics and drum patterns are streamlined and economical. This new sophistication means there is nothing like, say, the slipshod, over-mixed crash cymbals that plagued their early songs like “Prehistoric Dog” and drowning out the subtleties of Only Ghosts tunes like “Living in Lye” or “The Deep.” Yet certain mainstay elements suffer from this new approach. For example, without the overwhelming crunch that fueled their debut record, there’s often little besides the occasional bit of gruff background vocals to distinguish cuts like “Not For You” from safe Foo Fighters-esque radio rock songs. And even though it’s more of a psychedelic, spaced out jam than a metal track, it’s hard not to wish the breakdown of “The Smell of Sound” would hit slightly harder than a dull thud.
It is almost as if Red Fang’s actual songwriting has a bit of catching up to do with their theoretical songwriting. However, at the end of the day their successes decidedly outweigh their minor missteps. Only Ghosts promises that we can continue to expect good things from Red Fang, and it will leave fans assured that the gang aren’t losing steam or repeating themselves, as is so tragically common among their peers.