In retrospect, it’s odd how fresh 2020’s A Romance with Violence—Colorado band Wayfarer’s 4th album—sounded. The band managed to blend the unique “Denver” aesthetic (black metal, with sludge, with death metal, heated to a boil on the scorching stones of the Rockies) with the tortured history of the American Wild West to create something satisfying and different. Not I, Voidhanger different, but different in the “I can’t believe no one ever thought of that,” sense. It wasn’t perfect, but it found its way onto my end of year list (along with many other critics). Listening to it again made me realize how it felt like a beginning rather than an end, so I was thrilled when the follow-up, American Gothic, was announced. Could the band journey into something fearsome?
American Gothic continues Wayfarer’s signature sound, forged on A Romance with Violence. While the base of black metal remains, like many US compatriots, Wayfarer use this as a starting point to explore different and atypical musical terrains. This unique aesthetic is then fused to themes and sonic templates of the American Wild West, highlighting the echoes of America’s fraught and violent past while drawing parallels with its present. It’s both incredibly smart and quintessentially American. This thematic cohesion and eclectic style separate Wayfarer from similar bands (Vital Spirit are simple black metal through and through, Velnias lack the historical complexity, Akheron Thodol keep things strictly atmospheric). American Gothic goes even further, doubling down on the furious black metal, but expanding the other musical styles ever further. The result is a gorgeous if frightening experience. If A Romance with Violence was a furious, drunken gunfight, American Gothic is the survey of the wreckage and the counting of the cost.
For their previous four albums, Wayfarer having been tinkering with their formula to try to alchemize their sound into gold. A Romance with Violence was close, but American Gothic nails it. This is music with an atmosphere so thick you’ll feel like you’re standing in the saloon, whiskey in hand.1 Like Romance, American Gothic dishes up most of its fury on its opening half, reserving the experimentation and exploration for the second. The album’s opening one-two punch of “The Thousand Tombs of Western Promise” and “The Cattle Thief” showcase the band’s capacity for riffy, compulsive black metal before things slow down with the Western, doom-tinged, “Reaper on the Oilfields.” From here, the music shifts between post-metal (“To Enter My House Justified”), mournful balladry (“A High Plains Eulogy”), Cascadian metal (“Black Plumes over God’s Country”), and back to black metal again. What separates the album from its predecessors is how seamlessly these shifts occur. Whereas Romance’s jumps were occasionally awkward, American Gothic weaves them so confidently that a cohesive whole is created, and this whole presents a compelling view of a profoundly damaged time.
The issue that previously held Wayfarer back—namely, its penchant for songs that lingered too long—has also been addressed. Yes, there are still long tracks here, but only one above 10 minutes (Romance had four). Most hover in the manageable range of between 4 and 8 minutes. Importantly, because the material is so cohesive, you won’t notice the length, and the entire album, at a lean 48 minutes, flies by. Yes, you could argue that some of the interludes go on a bit (“Reaper on the Oilfields” is fun for 2 minutes, then drags for the next 2), but they make up such a small component of the album, and contribute so meaningfully to the dynamic, that this feels like a nitpick. There are also few immediately stand-out moments—the album is a grower and requires time and patience. But give it that and you’ll notice that American Gothic is more than the sum of its parts. The early singles, which felt a touch underwhelming in isolation, now sound powerful and meaningful within the context of the entire album. Lyrically, Wayfarer remain as strong as ever, adding nuance and complexity to the music. Consider the astonishing verse in “To Enter My House Justified”:
Carve out your name
Before time can forget
Across the sky
A bitter history
Carry your shame
Your deeds can’t be undone
We are the lost
The sons of nameless graves
American Gothic is the album Wayfarer have been threatening to make for years. The best black metal albums use the existing formula and expand upon it until there’s something new and exciting. Wayfarer take the violence and beauty of the land they inhabit and translate that to music that reflects that dichotomy. The result is the best cut of their career and an effort that occasionally transcends the genre itself. If you listen closely, it also offers a warning to the current world about the toll of unending conflict. Haunting, furious and compelling, American Gothic is essential.