Wino, the man of a thousand projects and of a fabled and grizzly psychedelic past, has taken to pared down acoustic music after years of duelling distorted guitars, drug illusions and conspiracy theories and it has done him no harm. After a while any artist begins to repeat themselves (to some fans apparent delight) whereas others shift into other, more unexpected forms. Wino, who has reinvigorated St. Vitus and teamed up with fellow childhood guitar magus Jim Karow in the psych-doom band Premonition 13 in recent years, released his first solo disc “Adrift” in 2010: a reflective, acoustic based collection of songs that pointed the way to this collaboration with Conny Ochs who supported his tour of said solo record. The two hit it off and this collaboration is the fruits of their friendship.
Like filmmakers who turn to handheld cameras or black and white visuals this album represents a return to basics – to display simple, unadorned emotional directness and simplistic purity: a different presentation of the same essential elements. On “Heavy Kingdom” the usual thick, smoke clad riffs, meandering solos and fantastical lyrics are replaced by themes of scarred longing, desperation and hard lives. The cover of ‘Highway Kind’ by Townes Van Zandt unsurprisingly feels right at home amongst the sepia toned country and folk flecked originals that reference outlaws, dark ravines and dusty highways: “I know we can’t do it any other way but we’re gonna die with the vultures by the vines”.
The two men’s voices work well together or rather alongside one another as there’s little sharing of duties but when they do harmonise like on the title track’s chorus it sounds like they’ve been doing this for years. Given the limited palette employed here it’s appropriate that song lengths are short putting just the right load on the song-writing. ‘Dust’ has some echoey electric geetarr augmentation but it’s subtle and kept in the background as on the chilling ‘Here Comes the Siren’ while ‘Vultures by the Vines’ is given some menace with some rumbling chords and a slashing solo. Elsewhere, Ochs takes lead vocals accompanied only by acoustic picking on the broken hearted ‘Traces of Blood’ sounding like a man beyond his years. All the cliches are here, outlaws scorned; outsiders with broken hearts let down by society but it works especially when you know Wino has lived just such a life.
Whilst not spectacular or overly demonstrative there is something endearing about this uncomplicated record with all its well worn traditions. ‘Heavy Kingdom’ is unlikely to win over fans who are dedicated solely to the heavy stuff but for everyone else there are songs of real honesty with evidence of a clear kinship between Ochs and Wino throughout.