Depending on which way you look at it, success in the metal world can mean vastly different things. To diehard fans, a band succeeds when it sticks to its genre-specific guns, digging deep into a particular niche both musically and aesthetically. But to us semi-casual listeners, it’s the band that willingly expands that most often captures our attention.
Of course, there’s more at stake when a metal band undertakes any kind of stylistic shift. From arena-sized icons (like Slayer and Metallica) to smaller bands with cult-like followings (like Deafheaven and Liturgy), subtle changes expand audiences as they alienate fervent fan bases. But for Richmond’s Windhand, the evolution evident on 2018 album Eternal Return has mostly been a (no pun intended) windfall.
First and foremost, Windhand remain rooted in a sound that borrows equally from pioneers like Black Sabbath and contemporaries like Sleep. But vocalist Dorthia Cottrell, guitarist Garrett Morris, drummer Ryan Wolfe and bassist Parker Chandler have stretched their legs in three major ways: 1) working with famed Soundgarden and Nirvana producer Jack Endino, 2) elevating the presence of Cottrell’s dreamy, wistful voice, and 3) synergizing loud-then-soft dynamics directly into the band’s fabric.
Windhand had worked with Endino before, on their 2015 album, Grief’s Infernal Flower. Last year’s Eternal Return, however, feels far more fully formed. It charts a cradle-to-grave journey pulled from real-life experiences–the departure of a longtime bandmate, the unexpected death of family members and the birth of Morris’ first son.
“The recording sessions for Grief’s Infernal Flower and Eternal Return were night and day,” Wolfe tells Folio Weekly. “Losing a band member changed how we wrote and worked, how we decided what was needed and what was not. On prior records, when we needed pauses to allow the listener a moment to chill and breathe, we would put one of Dorthia’s acoustic songs in. But the whole idea was to actually incorporate that aspect into what we playing as a whole band. That’s why this go ‘round, we put those softer, quieter, more psychedelic moments in with the usual loud, noisy Windhand sound.”
The good news: instead of prickling the ears of diehard adherents, those flourishes only upped the band’s doom metal credibility. Wolfe scoffs when asked about the demarcations Windhand must navigate as a modern metal band inching closer to more streamlined rock ’n’ roll territory.
“We constantly get labeled as a doom band, but I think the word is overused,” he says. “I understand you gotta label stuff for people to like or dislike, but we’ve never tried to be a certain band or have a certain sound.”
Grunge references make the genial Wolfe laugh even harder: “For the most part, our structure’s always been the same, but now people are saying we’re a ‘grunge doom’ band. I don’t even know what that means! A lot of that is because our producer, Jack Endino, was so vital and pivotal working with Sub Pop and recording Nirvana. That’s why people are making the connection. But we jokingly ask whether, if we didn’t record with Jack, would anyone be calling us a grunge band? We don’t feel like anything’s changed, other than Dorthia’s vocals becoming higher in the mix.”
Wolfe says focusing on allowing Cottrell to explore her full potential as a vocalist really divides the Windhand of old from the Windhand of 2019. After the successful release of Eternal Return, the band had to throw its rough outline for the future out the window.
“Things changed quickly,” Wolfe says. “We’ve turned down multiple tours. We have things in mind that we will make exceptions for, but we want to play the places that we feel are worth it.”
That aligns with the band’s maturity. Morris’ son is now 3 years old, while Wolfe and Cottrell have a diabetic dog that requires attentive care when they’re both on the road. Hence the short bursts of touring: two weeks on the West Coast last October, two weeks in the Midwest last November, one week on the East Coast this month, two weeks across Europe in March, and a three-night stand in Brooklyn in April.
“We’ve got to be choosy,” Wolfe explains. “If we accepted every offer, we’d be gone for the entire year.”
Local fans in particular should rejoice over Windhand’s four-show Florida run, which kicks off in Jacksonville. It’s been a minute since they’ve trekked this far south, and there’s a reason.
“About eight years ago, I booked a week-and-a-half run that included three shows in Florida,” Wolfe begins ominously. “And they were the worst shows we’ve ever had. Seriously, every one was the stereotypical Florida Man story. So we were like, ‘F*ck this!’ It was such a traumatizing experience that we’ve stayed away from Florida ever since.”
When pressed for details, Wolfe offers up a few telling tidbits: Spring Break, ridiculous set crashers and band accommodations in a house littered with dog feces.
Laughing, he says, “If we show up to that again, we’re done with Florida. But seriously, every time we announce a tour, people are like, ‘Come to Florida!’ So we thought after eight years it was time to try it out again. I don’t know what to expect, but I think it’ll be good this time. And it’s cold–I’m freezing my ass off in Richmond right now, so it’ll be nice to head down to a warm climate for a little bit.”