Ruff Majik, sludge ‘n rollers from South Africa who have put out a prolific amount of content over the past few years, return with the atmosphere-laden Tårn and boy did I love this release. I may have a bit of bias involved here, being a South African myself, but I am going to do my best to be as impartial as I can and review this album as I would any other.
One of the first things you may notice about this record is that it has an extremely garage/lo-fi production quality and although this may be one of my biggest criticisms of the album, to anyone who has listened to Ruff Majik before you might even understand this as being one of their hallmarks, part of the Majik canon if you will (on a side note: a magic cannon sounds fantastic). On the whole, this album delivers on so many fronts: it’s groovy, it’s heavy, and it’s catchy, a winning combo. Though Ruff Majik has never been as heavy as to be labeled a doom metal act, with each album they grow darker and more brooding and their sound here is a far cry from the stoner rock sounds heard on their debut The Bear, which released in 2015. This album is probably the heaviest release the band has ever put out and that really tickles my fancy. Although Ruff Majik fit perfectly into the stoner/doom genre, one of the standout aspects of any of their albums must be their vocals. Johni Holiday’s vocals remind me of a strange bastard child of Robert Plant and Jack White (with some Howlin’ Wolf, James Brown, and Elvis/Danzig thrown in for good measure) and for me are one of the most compelling parts of the album. For a genre that is generally dominated with pretty average and contrived vocals, Holiday’s sound is refreshing.
Now to discuss my biggest reservation of the album, and that must be the mixing. As mentioned, having a garage sound has always been a part of Ruff Majik’s aesthetic but their last few releases featured a much punchier drum sound that is heard on their latest release. On Tårn the drums sound extremely distant and muted, the kick drum barely audible and mostly just cymbals can be heard creating a washy texture over the mix. The snare sounds like someone is mashing on an elevated, tense piece of paper. Though this may be part of what gives first wave black metal it’s signature sound, I’m not sold on it in this context. This is unfortunate as it would nice to hear more of the drummer, Ben Machino Booysen. His playing is generally tight and full of feel, but a lot of the technicality of the drums is lost in the mix.
Another irking factor for me is the level of the vocals, as they dip away when all the instruments enter the mix. When the vocals are heard alone they are present enough but get drowned out in the full band. I do find the guitar mixing to be decent, the bass of Jimmy Glass has a lovely, warm tone and the guitars have a fuzzy charm to them. One track where I particularly love the guitar sound is in “Dread Breath”. The introduction is weighty, ruminant, and reflective and manages to give off an atmosphere of horror yet also austerity. Since I have been listening to Ruff Majik for a very long time now the mix does not bother me as much as it might in some other bands. As I said, the lo-fi mixing is almost a trademark of the band but I did really enjoy the higher fidelity mixing heard on their previous release Seasons. It’s not a deal breaker but it is most definitely the album’s weakest point.
As the album starts up with “Schizophrenic” we are greeted with some alluring clean picking. Immediately the album produces a somber mood. This conjures up images of day turning to night, as the light fades and we are embraced by mother Nyx (the goddess of night in Greek mythology). Before long we are being pounded by a black metal riff which is quite out of character for this band although genre bending is not that uncommon for them in general. The song proceeds to a suitably groovy stoner riff as Holiday wails over the dense distortion. This is a common technique in Ruff Majik’s writing, somewhat progressive but also somehow catchy. I wouldn’t say this album has a bad track, but I particularly love “I’ll Dig The Grave”, “Gloom and Tomb” and the opening track. Now that I look through the track list, I want to name one or two more, but that would almost be the whole album so I’ll leave my recommendations there.
Despite my reservation on this mixing, I love this album. The lo-fi sound is quite charming and might even add to the grave atmosphere the music sets. Though I said the band was South African, they have recently emigrated to Germany and are currently touring and playing many festivals around Europe. They have also just released a vinyl with Laybare Records that you can grab here. Check them out online and if you are in the greater Europe area, go catch a show, they are a fantastic live act to watch.