Review Summary: Country takes a psychedelic turn, achieving excellence and setting Leon III up for even better things in the future.
Country music has been on an absolute tear in recent years. From Sturgill Simpson’s psychedelic soul-country to Honey Harper’s cosmic dream country to Orville Peck’s gothic outlaw country-pop, we’ve witnessed a genre renaissance. A name you should add to that growing list of pioneers is Leon III – a side project of the Wrinkle Neck Mules’ singer Andy Stepanian and guitarist Mason Brent, which takes their traditional brand of country music and deliberately bends it in an alternative rock/psychedelic direction. If you haven’t exposed yourself to WNM’s decade-spanning discography, that would be a good place to start in order to appreciate Leon III for what it is: a dynamic and revelatory shift which sees Stepanian and Brent on the threshold of becoming something truly special.
isn’t quite the opus that will deliver the band accolades, but it carefully and creatively lays the groundwork. ‘Maybe I’m Immune’ is a powerful opener that defines the group’s mission statement: create atmospheric psych-country that is as emotionally sweeping as it is melodic. The initial presence of heavy riffs is a bit misleading compared to the album’s whole, which is far calmer. For example: ‘Faded Mountain’ sinks into a bed of soft piano and swaying guitars, ‘Paper Eye’ features gorgeously layered vocals and immaculate production from Mark Nevers, and ‘The Line’ is underscored by subtle – but beautiful – strings. The opener (and their cover of Velvet Underground’s ‘Jesus’) notwithstanding, the majority of Leon III
is subdued, but not “tranquil” – it’s too moody to qualify as “a cool country wave”, or a “delicate pool of emotion.” Aesthetically it sounds lush, but tonally it is concerned and uneasy. Stepanian serves as Leon III
’s emotional anchor, his voice gliding across the record’s smooth canvas and soaring to massive heights when the occasion calls for it. The slow builds and gratifying payoffs make most of Leon III
perfect for cathartic revelations, as mid-album gem ‘Alberta’ showcases with its swelling, wistful melody. It manages to sound lonesome and universal at the same time, especially when he sings “practically invisible in my disguise” during the final refrain. These sort of introspective lines resonate with a much wider audience – and fortunately, Leon III
is peppered with intriguing and similarly enigmatic passages.
Andy and Mason’s combined wealth of experience shines across Leon III
, proving that there is no concept they can’t spin into an enjoyable tune. It’s an immaculately produced and remarkably consistent experience, capable of turning any moment into a memory. Their passion is never in doubt, although Leon III
caps its own potential by not fully fleshing out the bolder psychedelic rock that’s teased on the opener. An apt blend of that style with the rest of the album’s breathtaking flourishes might yield a future masterpiece. Regardless, Leon III
achieves excellence on its own and places the band on the precipice of a breakthrough. Keep an eye and two ears on Leon III – a band primed to make some noise in a genre that is evolving right in front of us.