The first sound you hear on Windhand's new album Grief's Infernal Flower is the comforting crackle of fire.
The second sound is one familiar to fans of the Richmond-based five-piece: an electric guitar. It's not just any electric guitar but one with the kind of guitar tone—craggy, canyon-deep and crushingly heavy—that has made Windhand one of the most talked-about (and best) doom metal bands on the planet.
That tone, wrangled from 12 strings by longtime friends Garrett Morris and Asechiah Bogdan, helped fuel the breakout success of Windhand's 2013 sophomore album Soma, which in turn built significant anticipation for Grief's Infernal Flower, released in September by metal super-label Relapse Records.
The album doesn't disappoint, delivering nine thick slabs of slow-rolling thunder and enough characteristic Windhand guitar tone to knock Earth off its axis. It's another striking work from an astonishingly talented and thoughtful band, one that spent many hours together writing, playing, trying this or that and then scrapping it all before establishing the sound it makes today.
"There was a lot of push and pull in terms of what we wanted to do. There was a lot of hammering it out in terms of tempo and everything," Bogdan says in a telephone interview. "In the years since then, there might've been a swapping out of a pedal or two or something, but we kind of knew what we wanted, and it's been nailed down since."
Windhand has been consistent over the past few years but Grief's Infernal Flower signals a step out of the band's DIY shadows and into a sort of mystical light that cuts through the double-sludge attack of Bogdan/Morris and illuminates the vocals of the bandís lead singer, Dorthia Cottrell. After two albums of crowding Cottrell's spellbinding vocals with mountains of sound, Windhand approached the creation of Grief's Infernal Flower with the intent to give her melodies more space to sparkle, Bogdan says.
"People definitely gravitate toward Dorthia," he says. "She's got an amazing voice, and we definitely wanted to feature it more. She does so many amazing things vocally that sometimes mightíve been overshadowed by the heaviness."
To get there, the band decided to work with an outside producer for the first time and reached out to engineer Jack Endino, who has produced albums for Soundgarden, High on Fire and, most famously, Nirvana. (He's the guy who recorded Bleach for $600.) The band met Endino during a tour of the West Coast a couple years ago and felt he understood their vision, Bogdan says. Last spring, Windhand spent two weeks at Endino's Soundhouse studio in Seattle, "three or four" days of which were dedicated to vocals, he says.
During the process, Endino pushed Cottrell "in a good way," Bogdan says. It's a force that was obviously absent when Morris recorded the first two albums in Windhand's Richmond practice space, where the band would sometimes have to wait for a neighboring act to end rehearsal before starting its own recording process.
"He has a real ear for melodies and harmonies and stuff, so...where we might've been like, 'Yeah, that was good. Let's move on to the next track,' Jack might've pushed her a little bit more," Bogdan says. "He wanted to make the best record possible, and that's exactly we wanted, too."
Mission accomplished. Opener "Two Urns" buzzes and churns under a distinctively vaporous vocal performance by Cottrell. "Forest Clouds" works from the same foundation but is shrouded in a psychedelic haze. "Hesperus" and "Kingfisher" are two labyrinthine, 14-minute-long modern-doom epics that anchor the album's backend. And songs like "Crypt Key" and especially "Sparrow" find Windhand exploring the quieter corners of their sonic world, clearing out the heft and pairing Cottrell's voice with mournful acoustic guitar.
Those moments recall Cottrell's self-titled solo album of dusky Americana that came out earlier this year. That endeavor, Bogdan says, was also a major factor in Windhand's more melodic move on Grief's Infernal Flower.
"There's definitely a continuation from her solo stuff and what she thinks works for Windhand and what she thinks works for her, and there's a level of confidence there to try new things," he says. "I think she's way more confident now than she was several years ago."
Windhand play Oct. 31 at Brick by Brick
Now there's a scary concept: Windhand getting better as Cottrell grows as a vocalist and her bandmates slowly stretch their aesthetic palette. The band was already terrific, going back to their promising 2012 debut.
You have to hit the ground running, of course, when you're a heavy band from Richmond, home to veteran metal bands GWAR, Lamb of God and Municipal Waste, as well as adventurous up-and-comers like Inter Arma, Bastard Sapling and Cough.
"There's been so many accomplished bands that have come out of Richmond and there are so many people working as musicians that when you come out with something, you want to go full bore with it," Bogdan says. "You want it to be good right out of the gate."