The Gates of Slumber’s rise from local act to worldwide recognition rests largely on the friendship of guitarist/vocalist Karl Simon and bassist Jason McCash. Hailing from Indianapolis, Indiana, Gates established a reputation as one of the Midwest’s hardest hitting exponents of the Sabbath school of metal while incorporating a variety of other influences into the mix. Gates, however, stood apart. Unlike many other bands of this ilk, Gates never merely regurgitated their debts in paler forms than their predecessors. Simon and McCash, accompanied by a succession of collaborators over the years, invoked those influences while still filtering them through their own distinctive personalities and experiences to individual results. Their last studio release before disbanding and McCash’s death, Stormcrow, is a five song EP ranking among their best work.
The opening track “Death March” has a massive guitar sound anchored by McCash’s sternum rattling bass and “Iron” Bob Fouts’ casket nail pounding on drums. Songwriting for the band once meant a healthy dose of fantasy lyrics accompanying the arrangements, but Gates’ subject matter changed and, more often than not, grounded its focus in everyday horrors and sorrows. “Death March” namedrops the classic Saint Vitus classic “Dying Inside” and it’s no accident; the unsentimental depiction of addiction and dissolution owes much to songwriters like Dave Chandler. Gates, however, prefers an immense heavy fist over Vitus’ jagged slicing and the riffing leaves you woozy. The arrangement alternates between quiet passages and bulldozing blasts from Simon, but his voice has more than enough lung power to match the volume. Simon, however, isn’t all power and an ability to stay in key – there’s some effective phrasing here that puts over the lyrical despair.
“Driven Insane” has an extended, mid-tempo instrumental section before listeners hear Simon’s voice for the first time. The laidback pace of the early section melodically transforms for the second half and takes on a sharper, abbreviated edge. The riffing has a hypnotic effect you can’t ignore; everything is measured, deliberate, and inexorable. The tempo picks up for a particularly fiery blast deep into the song before launching into the song's final verse. Simon’s vocal melody is even better here than we hear on the EP’s first song, but the subject matter isn’t quite as specific. The inexorable pull of instrumental breaks in Gates’ music shows up in good form with this song; it’s a three piece never missing the seemingly necessary second guitarist because there’s a rhythm section doubling Simon’s powerful guitar at key points. Make no mistake, however, that McCash and Fouts add to the arrangements in meaningful, sometimes subtle, ways.
If you can hum it and it’s heavy, they will come. “Son of Hades” drives this point home. It builds up an early head of steam before mowing over listeners with memorable riffing, dramatic shifts, and another strong Simon vocal melody complementing the arrangement, but perhaps the most interesting moment comes with the song’s quasi-coda. “Dragon Caravan” doesn’t find the same stride heard in earlier tracks, but features some of Simon’s best lead guitar on Stormcrow. The track changes gears in its final section and invokes an unmistakably funereal atmosphere. The gloom doesn’t clear on the EP’s closer “Of That Which Can Never Be”. It’s an outright dirge submerged in a desperate, apocalyptic mood coming through quite clearly in its vocal, lyric, and lead guitar. McCash and Fouts make it all possible for a final time. This is a fine Gates of Slumber song and many much bigger, defunct bands would like to claim they reached its level of quality with their last studio track.
Despite personal turns, the band’s music remains and Stormcrow is a more than respectable, if unexpected, final curtain on their studio career. It will likely remind longtime listeners of the band’s music, intrigue them with their development, and win over any first timers who love metal like this. This is a small gem burning with a passionate, personal glow.