I get why people don't like sludge or doom or any of the other myriad metal subgenres that live in down-tempo ten minute songs; I do. It can get tedious to listen to the same riff over and over again, and your mind starts to wander, and before you know it, you're humming whatever Taylor Swift song was on the radio at work today, and you finish it, and the song you were originally listening to is still going. I get it. There's a lot to think about in a given day. For these genres to really stick, they need something to pull you in, like technical mastery of their instruments or riffs that are as catchy as they are endless. Still They Pray, the new full-length from Richmond, VA's Cough, certainly has both of those things, but it has another thing going for it that I quite honestly did not expect to find: Still They Pray is one of the more existential metal albums I've heard, and as I listened to it, I found my mind dwelling on it and contemplating life in a way very few albums have prompted.
"Haunter of the Dark" kicks off in fairly standard sludge/doom fashion; wailing feedback gives way to a distorted guitar riff, the drums and bass kick in, and then there's a vocal sample of something horrific/profound/unsettling. Then the song really starts in earnest, and we're off to the races. Cough is a four-piece featuring David Cisco on guitars and vocals, Parker Chandler on bass and vocals (I don't know who sings which parts), Joey Acaro on drums, and Brandon Marcey on guitars, and it's immediately evident that these four guys know what the fuck they're doing. The twenty-odd seconds of low static that begin "Possession" is insanely discomforting; you know something is coming, but when everyone kicks in together, it's still a shock, and by the time you make it to the last two minutes of the song, with the vocalists screaming "Now it's done/what have I become?" over an absolute frenzy of guitars, you're reeling and trying to figure out just what exactly it is you have done and what you have become. The follow up lyric of "Devil's chosen one" could (and maybe should) come across as trite, but given the buildup of "Possession," it instead raises the hair on your arms. "Dead Among the Roses" almost sounds like a fuzzy, weed-soaked grunge song in the beginning, but by the time you hit the end, you're clearly in headbanger territory. "Masters of Torture" is the best Black Sabbath song in twenty years, with probably the catchiest melody on Still They Pray.
As good as Still They Pray is when it starts, it's the second half of the album that really shines."Let it Bleed" is the closest thing you'll ever find to a sludge ballad, with clean vocals that carry the bruises of a lifetime of questions, begging "Life and death, all the same/Just let me be" over what is probably the grooviest riff on the record. "Shadow of the Torturer" is the musical standout of the album. It's a kaleidoscopic, instrumental fugue state; beginning as a phantasmagoric nightmare distilled through the back half of Clutch's From Beale Street to Oblivion, it rapidly (relatively speaking) dissolves into a hellacious, riff-driven climax that would make Bongripper weep. "The Wounding Hours" is the most venomous track on Still They Pray, six minutes of caustic vocals buried beneath layers and layers of distortion, with only a guitar melody emerging from the tarry depths. "Still They Pray" is the closing track. a pitch-black acoustic track that I wish to Dio Johnny Cash were still alive to put on to American XI. There's a hissing feedback behind the guitar that helps to give the song an icy, ominous feeling, and the return of the clean vocals emphasize the hopelessness and powerlessness of the song's lyrics of the doomed's prayers. I can't help but feel some symbolism in the album's title track being its last; Still They Pray is an album that brings up a lot of questions, and "Still They Pray" finds people giving up on finding the answers themselves and pleading to a higher power.
Still They Pray is a truly wonderful album, one marked with near-perfect musicianship, searing vocals, and lyrics that cut to the core of what it means to be human. The impeccable combination of brains and brawn plays out like a philosophical sledgehammer; rather that cave your skull in, each lyric plants another question in your mind, and each fuzzed-out riff gives you ample time and ambiance with which to ponder the answer. A six year wait between albums proves Cough is clearly not content to roll out mindless sludge to make a buck; Still They Pray is an absolute Album of the Year contender in a year that's already seen its fair share of monster releases. Cough has emerged from their absence at the pinnacle of not only their sludge and doom, but metal as a whole. Still They Pray can, of course, be enjoyed with friends or in your truck or at the gym, but I recommend removing yourself from company, disconnecting from your phone, and listening to the album straight through. Still They Pray is simultaneously massive sonically and disconcertingly personal emotionally, and I will not apologize for telling everyone I know to listen to it at least a dozen times in the next month.