Penance SpiritualNatural

With production so clear that guitarist Matt Tuite’s fingers squeak as he draws them across the strings, SpiritualNatural is decidedly Penance’s best album since 1994’s Parallel Corners — and may be the finest hour from this long-running Pittsburgh doom troupe. Though Terry Weston is retained on rhythm guitar on half the tracks, drummer Mike Smail is the only founding member left, and the new blood brings the band to a whole new level. Openers "Gemini” and "The Innocent” ring true of The Ethereal Mirror-era Cathedral, while the Scottish-influenced "The River Ara” (with bagpipes, even) realises the band’s keen experimentation. Classic doom comparisons abound here: "Regret” (Spirit Caravan), "Casting Long Shadows” (Nebula), and "Longsuffering” (Solitude Aeturnus), thanks to Tuite’s freeform organic soloing. The Hendrix-covering-Sabbath swing of "Lost My Way” opens a wider window of psychedelic influences, allowing Tuite’s fretwork to shine more brilliantly. The Mediterranean-flavoured instrumental "Iron Curtain Blues” sounds like the Gipsy Kings scoring a Greek ’70s indie flick, only to be followed by the suffocating sludge of the title track and especially "All Is Vanity” with its passages of unnerving beats and sounds à la Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma — like early EP tracks from Cathedral. The marauding closer "Starshine” segues into a rollicking outro, "Dawn Of A New Day,” then fades into an uncredited cover of "La Bamba” sung in German. Penance have added yet another solid album to the doom pantheon, and frankly it’s been a long time coming. (Martyr)