Amos Slade hails from the prairie lands of Flyover County, Sioux Falls, South Dakota – and the band’s sound is as expansive, dark, and gritty as their homeland. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Nick Engbers should be proud of the remarkable set of songs that he’s concocted for his band’s debut LP, Hungry Earth. He offers the rest of Amos Slade – guitarist Dan Lunderman, bassist Landon Heil, and drummer Phil Mueller – an open canvas on which they can create vast musical landscapes.
The first two tracks – “Sahara” and “Stones” – give you a hint of what Amos Slade are about. The former begins with some dark guitar arpeggios, menacing slide work, and heavy rhythm guitar, which introduce Engbers’ lyrics: “The sun is slow and bleeding / Although we might have beat it / Until it rises and heats up again.” The recurrent power of the sun suggests the relentless power of nature and its ability to dominant humanity. It’s almost as if Engbers has internalized the work of novelist Cormac McCarthy and introduced it into rock and roll, and the soaring guitar solo only emphasizes his almost gothic vision.
“Stones,” in contrast, starts on a lighter rhythmic note. But Engbers’ brooding lyrics – “Life is wasted on the living” – darken the mood. The guitarists kick their pedals for the choruses, exploring the quiet-loud dynamic made popular by Pixies and Nirvana over two decades ago. But Amos Slade take this dynamic to new places, with a couple of excitingly moving slide solos.
But Amos Slade operate in more musical gears than these tracks suggest. Engbers’ spectral lyrics are a constant, as is the band’s amazing guitar work. But “Down the Map” and “Caskets” are important shifts for the band because they embrace pop elements, and “Lunacy” – a great ballad – shows off Engbers’ vocal chops. “Builder: Burgler” – another cool ballad – features great singing and, by turns, atmospheric and heavy guitar. Listen to “Lunacy” in the stream below.
Hungry Earth, however, does have its problems. By the time the record’s second half kicks in, it’s quite noticeable that Amos Slade have a tendency to rely too heavily on the quiet-loud dynamic. Although this tendency works in individual songs, its repetition makes the record sound kind of same-y. Songs like “Millions” and “Circles” show melodic promise at their beginnings, but they make the loud-quite dynamic obvious and clunky and work to highlight the structural similarity among the songs.
But Hungry Earth ends on a surprising and compelling note. “Mara” – the penultimate song and perhaps the most moving and best-sung tune in the collection – burns slowly as a ballad. It gets away from the harsh prairie-land rock of the other tracks and expresses introspective vulnerability.
“Orphans” mines similar slow and introspective ground. Engbers’ lyrics are incredibly moving – the best on the record – and demonstrate his compassion for all people because all people eventually experience loss. Death, he sings, gives life more meaning for all of us. This song is so good that you’ll play it over and over again.
Hungry Earth is a notable debut album by a band that – let’s face it – is still in its nascent stages. But it’s as good as anything by Band of Horses or similarly like-minded bands. Amos Slade are for real, and Hungry Earth proves that they’re here to stay.