Album Reviews

King Buffalo: Dead Star Album Review

We’ve been aware of King Buffalo for a long time now. For years, they’ve popped up on Spotify as a recommended act, and they occasionally found their way into a Daily Mix. But they never really stood out.

But recently we heard “Orion,” a stunning, hypnotic Psychedelic track that starts like a section of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” and ends in a soaring mass of spacey goodness. Since then, we keep coming back to King Diamond’s discography, with a special emphasis on their 2020 album, Dead Star. An album review was inevitable. 

About King Buffalo

Before we get into Dead Star, let’s talk about King Buffalo. King Buffalo hails from Rochester, NY—a short drive from Buffalo, NY. Since forming in 2013, the band has focused on honing their Heavy Psychedelic sound, experimenting with tones, tuning, technology, and riffs to create something that is as artistic as it is heavy. 

King Buffalo is the trio of vocalist/guitarist Sean McVay, bassist Dan Reynolds, and drummer Scott Donaldson. 

Dead Star Review

On paper alone, Dead Star is an ambitious project. Just check out this track list:

  1. Red Star, Part 1 & 2 – 16:21
  2. Echo of a Waning Star – 3:05
  3. Ecliptic – 3:51
  4. Eta Carinae – 8:01
  5. Dead Star – 3:57
  6. Red Star, Part 2 (Radio Edit) – 4:42

Two things are immediately obvious. First, these guys are obsessed with space, so we should strap in for a trip. Eta Carinae, in case you are unfamiliar, is a star system with a combined luminosity that is 5 million times brighter than our sun and a storied history among astronomers.

Second, these guys are serious about their craft. You don’t open a 36-minute album with a 16-minute track unless you’re confident it’s the right move. With that as our starting point, let’s see what King Buffalo has in store. 

Track 1: Red Star, Part 1 & 2

It’s important to understand our history before we discuss the opener: In recent years, Psychedelic Rock has relied more and more on Hindu and Buddhist overtones, with bands like OM and My Sleeping Karma exploiting these influences throughout their work. To that end, Part 1 of “Red Star” opens like a standard OM track. There’s a hypnotic bass, persistent, prophetic vocals, a steady drum, and keyboard overtones producing a cosmic wave for the listener. The difference in “Red Star,” however, is the presence of a guitar that wanders throughout the piece, creating a sense of dread, mystery, and even curiosity, occasionally breaking out in spacey solos. With a tie to OM, there’s a tie to Sleep—and, therefore, a tie to Dopesmoker. With that, there are a few lyrics in Part 1 we wouldn’t be surprised to hear in the Dopesmoker epic:

Waking up in crimson glow
Vultures gathering on the ridge
Wondering what’s this place become
Shadows swallowing the sky
Arid dunes give way to jagged stone
Embers quivering in the mist
Burning flames dance across the sand
Blood and ashes on your lips
Sitting on an ivory throne
An iron hand glares down with lust
The fettered masses cry for gentle hands
Silence echoes from the sky
(Source: Genius)

Ominous and pregnant with anticipation, the song carries on like a lemming toward a mysterious cliff. Eventually, at the 9:30-mark, a sort of transition begins. The bass notes are more punctuated. The drums are a little heavier. The riffs are a little sharper. Eventually, the sound explodes into a radiant, swirling fuzz, washing over whoever manages to listen closely until the 10-minute mark. 

Part 2 is inherently faster. The lyrics remain in that same epic storytelling vein: 

Built with the backs of the destitute
The monolith stands wicked and red
Its cold black eyes gaze down shrouded in obsidian
Reaping the blood of the innocent
The obelisk demands a sacrifice
The time’s come for the shackled ones
To bring the tower, down down down

It’s getting late for the demagogues
Dispensing misery to the populous
Bellowing screams shout enough is enough
No more blood for the opulent
Damnation to the citadel
Nothing to lose but the weight of the chains
Burn the castle, down down down
(Source: Genius)

Track 2: Echo of a Waning Star

After a 16-minute epic, a (relatively) quick 3-minute palette-cleanser is appreciated. “Echo of a Waning Star” opens with a single clean guitar and vocals. As you’d expect after listening to “Red Star,” there’s still space—some slight reverb feels like they’re playing in a large chamber, or perhaps space itself. But that quickly ends. “Echo of a Waning Star” is a relatively quick build, with the band moving at a good clip before the 2-minute mark. While it lacks the emotion of “Red Star,” the punch within “Echo of a Waning Star” comes from the lyrics. 

Here a star falls down
Drifting slowly to the ground
Calloused fingers stained with rust
Heavy with ash and dust
(Source: Genius)

As you’ll hear if you pay attention, this song is as much about slavery as it is about a falling star. 

Track 3: Ecliptic

“Ecliptic” is another Pink-Floyd inspired tune, immediately obvious by the drone that fills the first 20 seconds. “Ecliptic” is an instrumental, with big guitars and synthesizers pulled directly from the ‘80s. King Buffalo may specialize in Psychedelic Rock, but “Ecliptic” contains many Synthwave qualities.

Track 4: Eta Carinae

We’ve arrived at the second-longest song of Dead Star. Before we get into it, it’s important to understand a little more about Eta Carinae, the star system. Eta Carinae has an interesting history because it has erupted and faded over the last 200 years, at times ranking among the brightest stars in the sky. That narrative is essential in understanding an album entitled Dead Star. Clocking in at 8:01, “Eta Carinae” opens at a quick pace, allowing a persistent guitar to drive the song forward. Although long, “Eta Carinae” is a tight performance. It is one of the best-written tracks on Dead Star.

Track 5: Dead Star

Like “Echo of a Waning Star,” the title track is a slower tune at the start, even opening with an acoustic guitar and the image of an albatross falling from the sky. Eventually, however, the sign erupts into a sadly beautiful wave of sound. Although “Dead Star” (and rest of the album) is about death, decay, and loss, there’s a certain acceptance in the lyrics. “Dead star calling me home” suggests that there is a sort of peaceful home to return to—even in the afterlife.

Track 6: Red Star, Part 2 (Radio Edit)

Unlike “Red Star, Part 1,” “Part 2” opens with fury. It’s the final section of the opening track, so now you have a chance to experience it again.

Final Thoughts

Score: 8/10

Pros: We’re big fans of concept albums and albums where the songs obviously fit together. It demonstrates an ability to construct a narrative and deliver a cohesive listening experience. King Buffalo has crafted an eloquent picture of lose, one that is as peaceful as it is heartbreaking. Lyrically, Dead Star is a delight, carrying themes from one song to the next without recycling old ideas.

Cons: There’s an interesting dichotomy within Dead Star. The album is about a dying star—and all of the symbolism attached to that idea. “Echo of a Waning Star” hints at themes of slavery and “Dead Star” opens with the image of an albatross falling from the sky. These themes are backed by a powerful, emotional delivery from the rest of the band, but there’s something missing. Sean McVay’s voice is beautiful, but it’s also flat and narrow. His guitars shimmer, jangle, and churn with passion, but they also fall short of their target. Scott Donaldson is technically proficient on the drums, and his work on “Red Star” is impressive, but he seems to hit the drums with the same level of aggressiveness regardless of the song. Perhaps, then, this partly an issue of mixing. It’s likely too early to ask for a remastering, but we want higher highs and lower lows. Even when run through great speakers, some sections are hard to hear, and that’s a huge issue for an album as intricate as Dead Star.

Placing “Red Star, Part 2 (Radio Edit)” is also a confusing decision. For a band that’s already put so much thought into their composition, “Part 2 (Radio Edit)” is a distraction—as part of the album itself. The overall album would be much better concluding with “Dead Star” and then offering the radio edit as a bonus track. As part of the overall experience, they’re essentially asking listeners to try out the same song twice in a 20-minute timespan. 

Listen to Dead Star

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