Bands hate being lumped into genres. What used to be a simple process has been complicated by the ever-growing number of ever-tightening niche categories. Jack White, for example, plays punk blues, a sub-genre formed from some mix of blues, garage rock and alternative rock. He can't simply play "rock 'n' roll" anymore. Groups can only avoid the arguments and hassle of genre placement by subverting the process and wholeheartedly pledging allegiance to one classification.
Such is the tale of True Widow and "stonegaze."
Taken for the sum of its musical parts, "stonegaze" brings together the concepts of stoner rock and shoegaze, but True Widow doesn't seem interested in living up to this definition. The deliberate pace and often meaningless vocals (by guitarist D.H. Phillip's own admission) make tracks on the band's third LP, "Circumambulation," an easy target for the "stoner" label, and the lack of emotional crescendos in Phillips' vocals fits the shoegaze mold, even if True Widow doesn't partake in the overdubbing associated with the genre. Drummer Tim "Slim" Starks self-imposed the classification when considering the reactions of crowds at the band's performances.
"You would look out and it'd be like someone had just had a medusa sighting," he said, referencing a gorgon's petrifying gaze. "That's more where the stonegaze concept came from than the genre hybrid...people were going to start doing it to us, so I'd rather have a small hand in what they say than being stuck with 'nugaze' or something."
Hearing Starks tell it, one could be fooled into thinking True Widow sounds boring. The group progresses through five-minute tracks, rarely changing riffs or tempo, and Starks' impressiveness as a drummer rests on his ability to maintain the simple beats while resisting the temptation to add bits of flair offbeat. The emphasis on repetition could have resulted in lackluster drone, but instead the dark motifs cause suspense to build up throughout "Circumambulation," even if the tempo never does. Tracks such as single "S:H:S" resound too quietly to be metal, yet resonate too darkly for indie rock. Relapse Records considered both truths before it signed True Widow to record the album.
Relapse, a label best known for extreme metal bands such as Dying Fetus and Toxic Holocaust (among other similarly named groups), didn't expect an intense product from True Widow, and the group knew it had nothing to lose, Stark said.
"Everyone on their end was pretty excited. A little change of pace from what they were dealing with at the office," he said. "They've caught a lot more flak for, pardon my French, having us 'p---y bands' than we have for appearing on their label."
"Circumambulation" was different by design, and not due to Relapse's influence. If first-time listeners think the album title is long and the pace slow during this album, the last record, "As High As the Highest Heavens and From the Center to the Circumference of the Earth," will truly astonish in terms of glacial riffage. The band played off "A.H.A.H.H.F.C.C.E" when it shortened the title and changed color scheme from white to black on the new album, intentionally flipping the coin, Stark said.
The vibe noir that attracted Relapse hasn't been lost on other alternative groups that dabble in down-tuning. True Widow will open for Chelsea Wolfe on her current American tour, and has traveled with ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail of The Dead, Japanese alt-legends Boris, as well as multiple stints with Kurt Vile. True Widow gets out for short tours on its own from time to time, but Starks embraces the perks of being an opener.
"Last time we were in San Francisco with Kurt Vile, we played the Fillmore," he said. "I don't see the Fillmore booking True Widow as a headlining gig. But you'll see us on our own before too long."
Starks leaves one topic regarding True Widow's production style off the table: the use of acronyms. "Circumambulation" features at least four tracks with abbreviated titles, and the 2011 EP "I.N.O" has three. Starks acknowledges that the use of colons instead of periods was just for fun, but he won't drop any hints as to what they stand for.
"Some people, it frustrates them," he said, giving no ground. "Some people like it because they can imagine anything they want. Makes it a little more fun."
True Widow might not be keen on letting you come up with a genre term for its style, but on the flip side, you can let tracks like "I:M:O" stand for anything you want.