Doom Rockers Duel Conjure a Masterwork of Otherworldly Omnipresence
Locals work their black magic on new album Valley of Shadows
The drive out to Jeff Henson's recording studio, Red Nova Ranch, looks straight out of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: rural, isolated, and more than just slightly sinister. Seemingly abandoned houses hidden by overgrowth dot a long, winding, dusty road that finally leads to a medium-sized, open-spaced studio that houses Marshall and Orange amps, Gibson guitars, and a vintage Fender Rhodes keyboard. This is where Austin quartet Duel recorded its third full-length album, Valley of Shadows.
Well-received predecessors Fears of the Dead (2016) and Witchbanger (2017) oscillate between short-circuiting guitar sorcery and musket-blast riffage commingling into a cranium-cracking maelstrom of warped horror noir. While Valley of Shadows continues to trek down a mythical path of ravenous birds and rabid wolves, the album lurches forward tenfold like an oracle summoning gothic omens and grindhouse pulp. All three discs originate on Italian hothouse Heavy Psych Sounds, home to San Marcos' Southern shredders Crypt Trip and desert rock legacy acts including Yawning Man and Nebula.
"In sky burials, Tibetan monks' corpses are just thrown on top of these mountains for carrion birds to feed off of," explains Duel frontman Tom Frank about the new album's theme. "Since these birds are like gods to them, this burial leads them to reincarnation."
"We took some mushrooms and hashed the album out," nods Frank's partner in guitar harmonies, Henson. "We added wolf howls, Tibetan meditation sounds, and crazy laughs to give the record color."
Written and recorded in two months, Valley of Shadows churns Seventies metal: Judas Priest locomotion, Black Sabbath fuzz, and Thin Lizzy leads. It's familiar territory for going on half a century now, but the album's melodic bloodletting stacks up all of Duel's previous work into a masterwork of the genre that transcends most contemporaries. Where previously Duel slogged among the faceless of their ilk, Valley of Shadows seems destined to separate them from the pack.
In the engine room, former Scorpion Child bassist Shaun Avants aids Frank at the mic. Newest addition and former Honky and Black Eyed Vermillion drummer Justin Collins provides percussion ballast. Henson's experience as a producer for bands like Eagle Claw and Clutch provides the melodic ear behind the record.
"It's all about harmonies and vocals," states Henson. "Rarely does anybody come out of a show singing a guitar riff."
Whereas Duel's initial albums spiral out through hacksawed riffage, abrasively gutted crescendos, and schizo psychedelia, Valley of Shadows wrings out insidious brutalism and then some. The album could nestle betwixt Angel Witch and Pentagram LPs, plodding and prodding like their counterpart legions, but the secret weapon lies in its vocal arrangements. Herein, Frank emerges as an intonation for the ages.
A cross between guttural NWOBHM squall and Glenn Danzig baritone, the frontman's singing levitates above the instrumental whirlpool, giving palpable depth to both the two-part harmonies and six-string leads. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, the bandleader lays down a vocal groundwork highlighted by a song of contrasts, "Strike and Disappear." Leading in as a melancholic ballad, its ghostly Frank croon entwines with high-pitched harmonies that trip-wire into a Motörhead rollick bolstered by a teeth-gnashing snarl and ruffian choruses.
"We like to capture different vibes," he confirms. "Especially when you switch to different sides of a record."
As such, the B-side begins with "Broken Mirror," where vertiginous flange meets proto-thrash, cutting off to the clamorous dissonance of maniacal laughing à la Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage." Juxtaposing "Tyrant on the Throne" and "I Feel No Pain," militaristic percussion in the former coaxes feedback that seamlessly transitions to eerie, Twilight Zone keys that wash over subdued, gelatinous melodies in the latter. True sonic details etched into the songs as if by X-Acto knives imbue Valley of Shadows with a victorious rush rarely experienced in albums of this stripe. The final mix even surprised their Roman sponsors, awash in grade A stoner rock and doom metal bands.
"Metal is such a weird genre," laughs Frank. "There's screaming and thrashing and even bands being called metal that really aren't metal."
"And with us, I don't think we really fit in there," agrees Henson. "We're heavy but not metal, and for a while, it really felt like there wasn't much of a scene here for us."
Now into the fourth year of their association with Heavy Psych Records, Duel has become a regular on the European circuit, gaining more exposure in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and France than here in the States. Their solution? In 2016, Frank – a booking agent on the side – founded Stoner Jam, which showcases like-minded locals like Ladykiller and Greenbeard. Since then, four to five Stoner Jams occur locally every year, with the venture having expanded to include international acts like Canada's Priestess and Lüger, and Mexico's Dizz Brew.
"A lot of these bands are friends we've met on tour, at bars, and at shows," offers Henson. "It's really an international community."
"Sometimes, we don't realize what we have here," echoes Frank. "There's so much history with 13th Floor Elevators, psychedelic music, and now with Levitation Fest and the growing community of Stoner Jam that a lot of international artists really want the opportunity to play in Austin. It's all here."