Family are a perfect example of a band who have got the balance right between the excessive riffing of heavy metal, the gutsy, earthen groove of southern rock and the melodic, blues-referencing structures of classic rock. Initially a feral experience, what sets family apart from similar bands is their ability to brace their melodies with a sense of real power, and to produce a sound that pays careful tribute to the past without aping it. As a result, over the course of the album you’ll hear fleeting references to many of rock and metal’s great institutions and yet Family succeed in sounding like precisely none of them. It’s a difficult trick to pull off over a song, let alone over a whole album, and yet not only do family do it well, they make it sound easy.
Opening track ‘bridge and tunnel’ is easily one of the heaviest numbers on the record – an incisive riff providing a howling backdrop for Kurt Applegate’s terrifying roar. The track hints at what’s to come with its strong sense of groove, but it’s only when the band lurch into the second track, the tom-destroying ‘daddy wronglegs’ that you realise something special is taking place. The track is still heavy, still swampy, and yet there’s a strong groove and melody there that owes much to southern rock despite the track’s overt sense of weight and power. From this point on it becomes clear why family have attracted the attention of Pelagic – a label known for its taste and restraint in signings – and as the track devolves into a doom laden anthem of despair the only source of light is from the stately solos of Steven Gordon and Josh Lozano which penetrate the bass and draw you back to the land of the living. The oddly titled ‘Bopsky’ operates in an awkward time signature all its own, the guitars neatly intertwining with each other over the verse before heavier riffs are conjured, as if from nowhere, as the song becomes increasingly agitated, before the whole thing stumbles off, blinded and in pain, in a progressive direction, the sudden lightness of mood a stark contrast to the heavy riffs found seconds previously. It says much about the band’s skill as musicians that they can pull off such changes without breaking a sweat, and the result is an album that is complex without being impenetrable and heavy without resorting to shock and awe tactics of overwhelming force.
Having got under your skin with the opening tracks ‘illegal women’ kicks off with the sort of cyclical riff that Mastadon have built their career upon but with a greater sense of space between the riffs allowing the song to veer into Sabbath territory with its corrosive riffs weaving an air of menace and decay before Jody Smith’s pounding percussion takes everything up a step and you realise you’re being worn down by the sheer volume the band can bring to bear when they choose so to do. ‘Delphonika’ is a quirky number that recalls the stop-start dynamic of Helmet crossed with the distinctly mid-tempo groove of and crushing misanthropy of Buzzov*en and it sounds immense; as viscous as tar and as toxic as a cyanide pill. Arguably the track that most references the classic rock of Led Zeppelin, ‘The wonder years’ opens with a deceptively muted introduction before stabbing riffs and off-kilter tempos explode, providing Kurt with the perfect entrée as he bounds into view, his vocals set to stun. Things take an arty turn for the psychedelic ‘Othermother’ which recalls the post-rock beauty of Isis and Red Sparrowes although it has a hefty sting in the tail for all that. The album concludes with ‘Exploding baby’ – a track that operates in a more progressive sphere, albeit one that heaves with tension, still managing to surprise despite the innovation that has characterised the previous six tracks. A lengthy, awe-inspiring conclusion to the album, ‘Exploding baby’ is a highlight that has you automatically reaching to hit play once again even before the disc has stopped spinning.
Family are by no means the first band to meld together the elements of classic rock, post rock and heavy metal, but here they have crafted their songs with such natural flair and panache that it sounds utterly natural. Heavy, but not so that it overpowers the subtle elements, fans of Neurosis, Isis and The Ocean will find plenty to admire. Couple that with the excellent artwork and you have a powerful heavy rock release that puts a new spin on familiar genres whilst simultaneously offering enough complexity beneath the surface to keep you coming back for more. An album that only grows with time, ‘Portrait’ is an intelligent and exciting album indeed.