Dear Lions – Dear Lions (2011)

Arctic Rodeo Recordings ■ ARR 033

Released May 25, 2011

Produced by Joe Philips, Adam Rubinstein & Dear Lions
Engineered by Mickey Alexander
Mixed by Daniel Mendez
Mastered by Ed Brooks / RFI

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Katherine
  2. Space Sister
  1. For the Kill
  2. Darling
  3. Gun

Not long after I picked up the Burning Airlines reissues of Identikit and Mission: Control!, I unsurprisingly found myself on the rather calmly scheduled electronic newsletter for the label responsible for those: Arctic Rodeo Recordings. Early this year, they sent those of us on it notice of a sale on some of the last remaining copies of some of their releases, in bundled and discounted form. I didn’t know most of the artists in question–maybe not any, actually. Still, the bundles were attractive, and I had been thoroughly impressed with how ARR did the two releases I owned, so it seemed worthwhile. Eventually, I was left with a massive order from Germany sitting in my arms, straight from my regular mail carrier. While it was largely composed of 12″s, it also contained a handful of 7″s, and one 10″: this record.

It was actually pressed in two different colours, mixed yellow and white and mixed blue and white. Each had a contrasting cover (yellow with blue or blue with yellow, as seen above), but I discovered on opening that the cover is actually similar to a number of 7″ packages: a single folded sheet with blue on one side and yellow on the other, held together by the clear sleeve it’s sitting in. It’s a clever idea, and appeals to my sensibility with the option to make it match if I want to (but I like colours, so I kept the contrast). But you can see the white and yellow mix makes for a rather lovely pastel yellow. But I know we’re not that interested in the colours (are we?).¹

I know and knew little about most of the bands I ordered records from, but had faith in what I’d seen so far, and rolled the dice. I did take a brief glimpse at the groups via a “sampler” I assembled from the tracks ARR includes on their website and was quite pleased with everything I hear. I’ve been cautious about doing much listening to the records, attempting to preserve the unique experience of listening to the records–I’ve relented a few times, but most of them are still going to be new to me as I listen to them. The closest Dear Lions could come to familiarity for me is the fact that their logo for the album was designed by Patrick Carrie, who was in the band Limbeck². Otherwise? Completely new to me.³

While that old adage about judging and covers is very true, we also all do it at least a bit–if nothing else, to decide whether it looks worth listening to or reading (or whatever it may be for a particular item). The graphic design is attractive, but it doesn’t tell you much–and it didn’t tell me much either. And, as a weird wrinkle, I semi-deliberately decided not to pay attention to which artist was responsible for the sampled tracks I listened to–just burnt them to CD and played them in the car. I couldn’t have told you which song it was on the record, let alone what it sounded like.

As it turns out, I really like Dear Lions–and by the time the song I’d sampled came in, I was met with a shimmer of recognition that flowered into a very warm and pleasant familiarity (and a sense of relief–while I’m known to be very open to sounds, that doesn’t mean I like all of them, and the desire to force myself to like things is unpleasant). 

The EP starts off very sparse, a single acoustic guitar, picked slowly and deliberately, arcing up and down somewhat somberly, Ricky Lewis singing in a comparable tone as “Katherine” establishes itself. It shifts to chords and adds keys nearly halfway through, but retains its pace until Lewis sings, somewhat unexpectedly, “So sentimental…/Oh no/Katherine, don’t come back,”–not because it doesn’t fit with the lyrics up to this point, but because a particular name in a song is not often met with something that is firmly negative without being flat out disparaging or angry. The sentiment is not unheard of, it’s just unusual in how it’s presented, the way that some people feel when Sam Beam swears in an Iron & Wine song–“Katherine” has a mournful edge to it, so you don’t really expect that. And when that line turns the song into a more upbeat stomp, adding bassist James Preston and drummer Charlie Walker, it seems even that much more peculiar, the part of your brain processing the lyrics alongside the sounds wondering what in the world is happening, while the side that just appreciates enjoyable sounds sees no reason to question or complain. The open, splayed, reverberating chords of desolate western cliché add yet another tinge to this sensibility, while Lewis’s voice takes on the timbre it rides for the rest of the EP–a cross between indie rock affectation and semi-camped croon, enunciated unusually clearly and extremely appealing. The hesitant, shimmering open end punctuates the established unusual sound, confirming any further expectations should not be held except in comparison to the entirety of the opening track.

“Space Sister” is the one track readily available for purchase from their bandcamp site (as opposed to the free EP) and it’s quite justified as a choice to ask for money for: Preston’s throbbing bassline and Walker’s precise drumming are the backing to the tightly clutched sound of muted and controlled guitar chords. A single verse and the second guitar turns to a distant, wobbling echo, Lewis’s voice fulfilling the promise of the tangle of croon we heard in “Katherine,” the vector of his voice holding that crooning sound but shedding the kind of campiness that comes from bands that oh-so-consiously mimic the sound, instead seeming like a natural expression of his voice. It’s an incredibly pleasant voice married to a jangling guitar free of restraint and a bassline that builds the song’s actual progressions into itself, subtle but apparent.

Preston is dominant at the open of “For the Kill”, but the bright and open chords that spread across the track from an electric seep into that dominance, the open and steady acoustic chugging along as skeleton in the background. Lewis’s voice is still in that Andrew Bird-esque range, but really shines on the chorus, the electric guitar (be it Lewis’s own or, more likely, that of Adam Rubenstein) curling in on itself from the previously open chords, but Lewis’s voice expansive, oddly screwing itself back down to drive home the song’s title at the end: “Coming through every night like a bat out of hell/Watching the city explode from the window sill/Swears like a sailor and drunk as she goes for the kill.” Indeed, this was the song that I’d heard first, though I only caught onto this at the chorus, which had always been extremely catchy, mostly thanks to Lewis’s voice.

There’s an unpretentious streak in the sound of “Darling” that swirls into Lewis’s singing style and renders it a peculiar amalgamation of classic or familiar and modern or unusual–or perhaps all of them. The pacing and tone are again strange for the most apparent of lines: “And I’m sorry that you’re so torn up/Can I say I’ve been having some fun?/You only love my depression/It’s a wonder how I found the sun/Don’t try to tell me that you want me back/I have finally surrendered/Singing blues while your heart turned black/Don’t tell me that you want me back.” There’s an audible snarl in many of the lines, even as the “escape” that inspires it is hardly a joyful occasion. There’s a country tinge hiding somewhere in hear–lyrically, perhaps, but also sonically. The song feels like a fresh-sounding version of an established one, interestingly, and it works quite well for that.

“Gun” takes the sounds of all the previous songs and blends them into a cautiously forward-leaning track, Walker’s drums restrained but working in the full range of that restraint–the other instruments shrugging and accepting their comparative bondage. Lewis’s voice is still open and clear, but less emphatic than on the previous tracks–it’s almost like a knowing closer, yet unsure if it is or could be that, not yet decided whether to build to climax or act as the much slower, lower waves washing back out. Electric guitars begin to strike out jagged chords in preparation for crescendo–and the song suddenly fades.

Each time I listen to this EP, I’m struck by how good it sounds. There’s no movement toward particularly exotic choices or ideas, yet everything still manages a newness and clarity that prevents the sense of ho-hum. The little quirks and individualistic elements of the group shine through but don’t overpower the songs, which are striking for both their comfortable impression and their single-eyebrow-raising lyrics–not quite gasps of “Wait, did he just sing–?” so much as “Hold on…” and momentary pondering upon what was just heard–no need to go back and confirm, just to re-evaluate what has been heard to this point in a slightly different light.

So far, then–Arctic Rodeo Recordings is not letting me down at all in what they’ve signed to release–small wonder, I suppose, for a small label to have a lot more control and overall unity to their taste.

  • Next Up: Deftones – Deftones (the self-titled “two-fer” is purely by chance!)

¹Apparently this came up when my father nudged some of his online compatriots out this way, but I’m actually aware of the sonic problems of lots of coloured and (especially) picture disc vinyl. However, as I’ve addressed elsewhere, vinyl is often plagued with issues anyway, and only has subjective superiority, not technical superiority. The appreciation (for me) stems from the “ritual”, from the appeal, the physicality–it’s not about the sound in the first place. Again, I’m not playing on a high end stereo or a high end turntable. The pretty vinyl just adds to all of this.

²I know them from their tour with Reubens Accomplice, Piebald, Steel Train and The Format, all but one of which will appear here later, actually–all as a result of that show.

³Ed Brooks has mastered some great records, of course, but considering he is part of the Seattle-based RFI and acted as part of that studio, there’s less of an implied personal association. And the breadth of RFI’s mastering is absurd anyway–mentioning R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People and Botch’s We Are the Romans should make that clear. If it doesn’t, make sure to sample some tracks from each and you will see what I mean.


Davenport Cabinet – Our Machine (2013)

Evil Ink Records ■ 

Released January 15, 2013

Produced by Travis Stever and Mike Major

Mixed and Mastered by Mike Major

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Night Climb (Intro)
  2. Deterioration Road
  3. Simple Worlds
  4. Sister Servant
  5. These Bodies
  6. Our Machine
  1. Black Dirt Burden
  2. Drown It All
  3. New Savior
  4. Dancing on Remains
  5. At Sea
  6. Father

NOTE: There are two obvious points here I could gloss over, or choose to address, and I’ve decided on the latter. First: It has been quite a while. I’m working two jobs now, so in the interest of not just rushing through listening, writing, or both, I’ve been simply letting things slide, and instead working out a schedule that works for the jobs and for my own sanity. I apologize all the same–I’m obviously not even close to succeeding at my original goal of “a record a day,” which has effectively become impossible without becoming Robert Christgau in writing style. And Christgau is often too acerbic for my tastes anyway.

Second: This is also why I’ve chosen to omit the “day numbering” in the title of the entry. I should hope it was not exactly something people looked forward to (at least, as compared to actual content), so I also hope it will not be missed too severely.

I’ll admit that part of the reason I ended up delaying at first was that I’d originally hoped to work this album in to its “logical” place, though that has long since passed. I knew it was coming, but could not nail it down in all senses, and I knew quickly it could not arrive in an alphabetically correct place (indeed, we’ve already seen three records that come after it in the alphabet). It’s such a good record though, and I wanted to give it a spot here. Of course, I say that and did not, at the time, have it on vinyl–heck, it wasn’t available on vinyl–as it was only announced then to be coming.

I did finally snag it at a live show, pre-signed (I guess whatever you can do to cut down on dealing with a whole audience seeking signatures!) and was very pleased to do so. I’ve actually listened to both my digital copy (purchased on its release day) and the record numerous times since it was released a few months back, enough to be both pleasantly and overwhelmingly surprised by how much I like it. Davenport Cabinet (named for the “spirit cabinet” of the Davenport Brothers magicians show a good century and some change ago) has only released one other album (Nostalgia in Stereo) and a split 7″ prior to this, both released multiple years ago.

Nostalgia is an interesting album for me–I picked it up a few years ago, listened to it a few times and let it sit on the shelf. I came back to it thinking I should give it another chance because it hadn’t made much of an impression, but realized as soon as I started listening again that I didn’t need to give it a chance and it had made an impression that had somehow slipped away. This made me pretty excited when Our Machine was announced, though I found myself feeling “not bad” was the assigned judgment of the title track, which came out with the now popular “lyric video” approach to single releases.

The album, however, was immediate, and framed even that track into such a place that it gained leaps and bounds. As I mentioned–I really wanted this record to be something I got to talk about here, as it deserves it and is likely to, comparatively at least, slip between the cracks for various reasons I’ll get into.

The feeling of Davenport Cabinet’s first album was almost perfectly described by its own title: it was nostalgic, and it was so with relation to stereos (a bit of a play on words perhaps–it’s playing in stereo or on one, it is nostalgia, it comes from nostalgia, and relates to music and nostalgia for it–not so much ambiguous as multi-faceted in meaning). It’s not much different from how you could describe the second album as well–now Travis Stever has involved his cousin Tyler Klose in not just performing but writing, turning it from a solo project to a duo, though of course others are involved in various performance aspects as well.

“Night Climb” is an interesting intro, as it strikes up the mood of the album, or its source, at least: on the heels of crickets and comfortable evening sounds, very natural hand percussion is matched to guitars and lightly phasing electronics, while wordless vocals cover territory you might call “haunting”, if it weren’t all so familiar and friendly.

I am left a bit with the notion that perhaps “Deterioration Road” might have better served as an introductory song for folks–but that may be indicative of my peculiar tastes, rather than any kind of reality. It uses an isolated guitar lead to strike a chord that takes the whole album and plops it right in front of you and gently places itself around your ears to hold your focus. Rory Hohenberger’s drums, Stever’s bass, and the clean, guitars of Klose and Stever together give it the feeling of a track that has fallen from the radio out of a past decade–and I mean that in the best way possible. It feels familiar, laid back but infused with a kind of energy despite that. I first heard Travis sing in the voice of Richard Manuel, when I heard him covering “I Shall Be Released”. He’s shakily confident, or confidently shaky–or something else that I can’t quite find the words for. Perhaps the tenor might be better described as “fragility”, as there’s no wobble or warble to it, it’s just carried at a pitch that it just seems like it oughtn’t be able to sustain–not a falsetto, just the probable high end of his range. Distorted guitars weave their way into it, but don’t overpower, instead feeling like natural, “classic” sort of guitars. The chorus makes it a more full-sounding song, that seems as though it should be a “classic rock” mainstay we’ve simply missed for some time. Maybe it’s a style from Jimmy Schultz, who contributed the distorted lead that really hammers this home, I’m not sure.

“Simple Worlds” is quite possibly my favourite track on the album, with an acoustic intro that has a snaky lead shot through it. More the feel of a few guys on a porch blazing through a song they put together quietly and privately, with beautiful harmonies on the chorus–but then guest vocalist Laura Tsaggaris appears, and it’s more like a whole group of friends performing together, practiced and expert despite their humble choices. A cappella repetition of the chorus after her verse highlights the careful construction of those harmonies and the wonderful sounds of them. The lead slips back in, Travis’s voice layered in a second time to run through a few of the song’s other lines (including the brilliantly constructed opening ones, which appear in variation throughout: “I’m at a loss for words/But I can see you’re innocent”, the rhythm of it so perfect as to tickle me each time I hear it. It’s a “simple” song, though one shouldn’t be mistaken–it has the sound of a quality and expert recording, and there are clearly tricks only a studio could manage (in particular, the vocals–unless we’ve got a second Travis Stever hiding somewhere, a fact which would certainly not cause me to weep).

Interestingly, Stever takes on the drums for “Sister Servant”, even as he continues on bass duty. It’s a more uniquely modern song, despite the firmly planted notion that this is a relic of decades past in feeling–the guitars that open are rhythmic despite their melody, short, blunted points that don’t blur into each other, even as the bass remains slinky and fluid. Stever’s drumming is deliberately jolting, almost tripping over itself in an interesting rhythm that seems to imply he was caught off guard and is racing to catch up. It’s an interesting contrast to those cool (in all senses) guitars, and particularly the chorus’s sudden introduction of slightly effect-ed guitars that hit a warm note that is beyond appealing. The final third of the song highlights the generally lower pitch Travis employs through much of the song, which is turned into a beautiful repetition and a final a cappella rendition that is left to hang for only a moment.

“These Bodies” is perhaps the closest to the songs that appeared on Nostalgia in Stereo, holding its focus on neither electrics nor acoustics, and layering a variety of sounds and effects, with turns in style more familiar and comfortable, highlighting that nostalgic association of Davenport’s music. When the chorus hits and the song gains some weight to its movements, it stays in that same kind of territory–like a band that was caught between the popularity of the elitists and the populous, and then lost to time as a result, neither overtly cerebral and esoteric nor light and vapid: carefully constructed and thoughtful, but accessible and clear. The electric lead in the song is blistering, but makes no big waves about itself, even as it begins a fretboard dance through the chorus. Klose is allowed to close the song with a quiet keyboard outro that repeats the melody in a very appealing way.

I think all it took was coming out of a song like “These Bodies” to really put “Our Machine” in the proper place–an acoustic twist into chords that follows the notable electrics of a keyboard, light whine of electronics behind it–it makes a kind of emergent sense here, a gently manifested song, not as big and bold as the prior songs, even when the chorus first comes in and Travis and Tyler’s voices begin to blend. When Travis’s drums come in, it still doesn’t make a big noise and attempt to draw attention to itself, it’s just an easy ride, those clean and lightly jangling acoustic sounds keeping it grounded, but grassy and breezy, not clumsy and stiff. Finger-picked moments (I could swear that’s a banjo) emphasize this sense of field-mounted playing to the sky, even as it speaks to another human. It makes for an excellent closer to the first side of the record, or a good, lightened sound intermission in the course of the album for a straight run, even calming to its end without any huge bursts of unnecessary crescendo.

While he retains his intermittent drum duties (for the last time on the album, though), Stever passes the bass to Tom Farkas on “Black Dirt Burden”–I seem to recall in an interview he said the song just felt like it needed someone else’s touch on it. It starts with a subdued but suggestive beat, implying an energy not yet present, and kept low to the ground by the introduction of a banjo (this time for sure!), but then a sort of beam of talkbox appears and spreads itself across the track, and it’s kicked into gear by a soaring talkbox lead and electric riffing, which all wash out like a wave’s aftermath to leave only aftershocks of their explosion in the moments following. Travis’s voice is at its most powerful and emphatic–that chorus, bolstered by the electric guitars behind it–amazing. “Raise the curtain/They all run for their lives you stand your ground/Black dirt burden…” it’s not a boast, or any other kind of over-confident, false sound–it’s an utterly appropriate burst of energy, passion and sound, and it’s effective in all the best ways. When it slowly falls back to the ground the second time, it leaves space for an electric lead that introduces quieted vocals and occasionally reappears. When they end, the talkbox returns to for more histrionics, of the kind of showing off that is less hollow display and more the kind that leaves an engaged audience cheering–and it brings us back to that bloody amazing chorus, which could not work with a voice unlike Travis’s, which feels like it’s pushing at all of its edges, defining the highest, smoothest arc of its range possible.

Coming out of that, it’s probably best Klose and Stever went with the more relaxed down-the-road ramble of “Drown It All”, as the clean and acoustic guitars, the harmonized vocals and the light but mobile drumming of Hohenberger keep things far more gentle than the heights of the prior song. As a song, it focuses heavily on the harmonies of our two vocalists, leads sliding, clear, and clean over the top, and guitars below flecking the flavour of the song out here and there for the best appeal, unintrusively experimenting with movements around the neck. We’re back to the porch and three guys jamming with expertise and care, recorded expertly and clearly, but without any fireworks or unnecessary frills.

Opening with a bass line seems to suggest differing grounds for “New Savior”, and the entrance of guitar both encourages and discourages that; it’s not an out of character moment for the band, but it’s definitely a shift in style away from “Drown It All” or even “Black Dirt Burden”, the honed edge of staccato distortion not used for aggressive or loud purposes, but effected as a kind of stuttering brake, or maybe even a faltering attempt to push forward–it would seem like the kind of thing that might exaggerate the sound or energy of the song. Instead, it’s like an inverted image of an EQ “Bar chart”, as if it is flat at the top and all the variation is on the underside, keeping it from getting too loud, while remaining varied and interesting. It becomes a swirl of vocal harmonies, though, and the guitar is let loose to experience both ends of its range for a moment of ominous questioning–“Who’s that starless¹ in my fortress?” It’s a darker edge to the song, but it’s immediately freed, oddly, by a flurry of distorted lead guitar sparks, though it can’t escape the gravity of that question or the lumbering sound that backs it, as it returns to it again to end the song.

The introductory guitars on “Dancing on Remains” are achingly beautiful, fluid and sharpened on this point. It’s not laid back like “Drown It All” or “Our Machine”, it’s more like a solo moment of introspection. Of course, Klose is accompanying Travis on keys, and the chorus brings more voices in beyond Travis’s solitary descriptions in verses. The fuzzy layer of electronics droning in the background is like another pull at the gut like the guitars, though in a different way, as if holding each part of your gut–or your heart, perhaps–in suspension so that the lyrics, the feel and the atmosphere can all reach you directly, and avoid your being in the wrong place to hear it, keeping a balanced frame to aim the final, complete intent, which includes the few solitary lines from guest vocalist Pete Stahl’s voice. The semi-a cappella moment at the end (over ringing bass line and that droning electronic) is one of the moments that is haunting, instead of seeming like a strange, comfortable aural relative.

“At Sea” manages an interesting amalgamation of the free acoustic instrumentation and the more aggressive or loud distorted guitars, even as it shambles along through a swing and rhythm that strongly imply the title’s accuracy. There’s a tugging guitar sound to the chorus, pulling in one direction, until a shouting chorus that comes out to crashing waves of emphasis and up-front emotion. It’s an odd thought, but it almost feels like Travis standing with Tyler at the prow of a ship, shaking a fist at angered waves, defiantly expressing these thoughts and feelings at a foe that has neither interest nor concern for them, but an unexpected malicious desire for harm all the same. It’s not unknowing, of course–it feels as if these things are being expressed for himself despite that absence of chance at defeat, instead being defiance that manifests an internal confidence and need to establish self. A wash of waves and drums slowly fades out of the song and carries not so lovely implications for this interpretation–but doesn’t seem sad for that, interestingly.

Functioning as a kind of outro, “Father” is an instrumental track, with Rory now supplying an acoustic guitar instead of drums (which appear to be electronically supplied). It’s an interesting marriage of acoustics and electronics, with a searing and wonderfully warm lead striking across it, slowing the rhythmic propulsion of the track’s beat and squalling electronic accompaniments. At the end, there’s a release of the harsher noises, and reverberating electric guitars, instead, let things float off easily.

It was difficult to manage this properly.

Travis Stever, as you may or may not know or have realized, is actually the guitarist for Coheed and Cambria. He released Nostalgia in Stereo around the time of their first “Neverender” tour, where they played each of their albums in succession over four nights at a handful of venues. This was five years ago, and was the last time we readily heard from his solo voice–indeed, it was video from that very tour that was the introduction I referred to. During an encore, Travis sang “I Shall Be Released” ahead of the rest of the band, and it was an eye-opening moment. Who in the world would expect a Band cover from Coheed? Somewhat cynically, I also wondered how many would recognize it–perhaps unfair, but certainly not too odd a thought, considering the chasm of difference in sound, style, and time period. But it really set the stage for the Davenport records, which do clearly echo earlier sounds than he employs even for his own parts in Coheed and Cambria.

Of course, I didn’t hide this out of shame (naturally)–I did so because it might colour expectations, and do so quite unfairly. Because Claudio Sanchez is largely responsible for at least the overarching direction of Coheed, and has received solo writing credit on at least most of the last two albums, there’s a real lack of surprise to find that Travis’s personal sound is very different from the band he is most known for. I cringe inwardly at this, largely because I think it’s somewhat criminal that Davenport is not as immediately accepted–even if this is, to be honest, mostly a result of the natural human tendency to identify bands by voices. Particularly the less musically intense people of the world tend to do this, but I think almost all of us does in some respects unless we are devoted enough to an instrument to hear it first (or, of course, listen to largely instrumental music). There is a character to those instruments the rest of us aren’t listening as intently to, of course, and you can hear Travis’s character in his Coheed parts, but because they are blended so much more there, it’s harder to discern directly–easier to go back after hearing these and nod sagely.

I can’t fault people–I have my own great affections for Claudio’s side project, too (The Prize Fighter Inferno), but I think Davenport’s lack of obvious connection (ie, vocals) makes it less immediately familiar and thus less immediately accessible to some fans. And then, in reverse, the strange attitudes toward Coheed and Cambria would discourage many who would appreciate this record from thinking it might ever be appropriate for them. I think that’s the brilliant thing about this album, though–it could (and should) stand outside that association, but it’s hard to escape it. Every interview I read, Travis is quite gracious and thankful when the questions inevitably turn at least to “How is this band different for you?”

It’s a different beast, as I’ve said, from even the first ‘Cabinet record, and this is further emphasized in whatever format you purchase it in–I bought the digital release January 15th, and then eagerly snapped up the vinyl when I last saw Coheed a few weeks ago. Both versions contain digital bonus tracks–“Sleep Paralysis”, “14 Years-Master”, “Buried or Burned”, and “First Dive” digitally; “Cheshire Cat Moon”, “Letters to Self” and “Weight of Dreams” are included on the vinyl download card–and they aren’t roughs, demos, or songs that deserved to be omitted. The album is a lean and mean 42 minutes as is, and I think it does well at that length, but losing “Sleep Paralysis”, “Buried or Burned”, the stomping “First Dive”, the driving acoustics of “Cheshire Cat Moon”, the somewhat 80s inflections of “Letters to Self” and the gentle throb of “Weight of Dreams” would be a shame.

Go and sample some of the record, maybe Our Machine’s video, or the quiet performance of Travis and Tyler alone at “Deterioration Road”, that shows off their voices and harmonies.

¹I’m notoriously terrible at hearing lyrics correctly, which often informs my greater emphasis on appeal in their rhythm, sound, and construction, which I know at least a few writers actually start from anyway (“Scrambled Eggs”, anyone?). It’s entirely possible, as a result, that I have that first phrase entirely wrong or partially wrong. I’ll blame it, at least somewhat, on Shiner’s album Starless, which I acquired only recently. But I hate anyone confidently asserting or spreading incorrect lyrics, so here’s my caveat. Still, they rhythm as well as the fact of the questioning nature of the lyric (I know I have the last part right, though it changes a bit each time–eg, “this fortress”) feels important.

Day Fifty-Four: Decapitated – Winds of Creation

Earache/Wicked World ■ WICK011LP

Released April 11, 2000

Produced by Piotr Wiwczarek (aka “Peter (VADER)”)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Winds of Creation
  2. Blessed
  3. The First Damned
  4. Way to Salvation
  1. The Eye of Horus
  2. Human’s Dust
  3. Nine Steps
  4. Danse Macabre
  5. Mandatory Suicide

In discussing metal, I typically refer clearly–at some point, anyway–to my first ever “real” metal band, which was Morbid Angel.¹ Indeed, it was their second album, Blessed Are the Sick that really “clicked” with me finally, once I was able to get used to David Vincent’s vocals (and thus, forever after, the “cookie monster” growling that typifies death metal at large). I actually ordered the album direct from their label, Earache, at the time, back when I was still in high school. Coupled with it were a handful of stickers for other bands, like December Wolves and, well, Decapitated. Because I still knew so little about metal, I took those two names as inspiration for further exploration–and, hey, I was an eMusic Unlimited member at the time (when there still was such a thing), which meant their partnership with Earache opened the door for me to try just about anything I felt like that they recommended.

I snagged Winds of Creation readily back then, and found myself pleased (December Wolves did not go over so well, but that’s largely because they were not and are not strictly death metal, which is what I was looking for at that time–in fact, they were triggered-drum-heavy black metal, which was still a very foreign thing to me). I picked up 2002’s Nihility as well, eventually even ordering it on the massive 220g vinyl that I also ordered Slaughter of the Soul on, at the same time. Winds of Creation ended up on one of my “I want to blast this metal” CDs (most of them paired with other albums) I burnt in those days, but Nihility eventually took over for me, largely on the back of the album’s single “Spheres of Madness”–which, let me emphasize, has an absolutely killer main riff. Of course, if you wander around and compare ratings (such as those at the stupendously comprehensive Encyclopædia Metallum²) you will find Winds consistently receives the highest ratings out of all of their albums (and note that The Negation slips significantly after Nihility, and that the last two albums get passable scores at best).
Truth be told, Winds of Creation is a superior album overall. I still have a soft spot for Nihility and will often claim it as favoured personally, but I have to admit that the production, in particular, gives Winds the edge (Nihility is comparatively “dry” in production–intensely so, in fact). It was with this in mind–as well as a personal desire for ownership–that I ended up snagging Winds of Creation only a few weeks back. I’ve been wanting to give the album more spins, simply because it doesn’t have a song that completely breaks up the feel like “Spheres of Madness”, so there’s not as distinct a hook. Throw in the fact that it was actually issued on vinyl (this happened in 2010) and on coloured vinyl at that, and it was a given.
While I’ve never noticed as strong a hook as the riff in “Spheres of Madness”, the opening of Winds of Creation, the title track, is a fantastic opener which doesn’t rely on the studio-based radio fuzz that opens Nihility. Witold “Vitek” Kiełtyka’s drums are absurdly precise, and create a distinct and rigid backing for his older brother Wacław “Vogg” Kiełtyka’s guitar riffs, before he unleashes his frighteningly rapid double-kick, which eventually launches the album into the stratosphere and makes room for the lean, muscular riffs of Vogg to streak up the sides of the song. Wojciech “Sauron” Wąsowicz has a wonderful growl: his vocal rhythms are strange and hard to follow, and masked somewhat by his rather distinct Polish accent (when you can match his words to the written lyrics, you can hear it easily, and it became more clear in Nihility where his voice was more clear in general). The song is pummeling and serves as a fantastic introduction to the band, who had previously recorded only demos, some of which were released on the compilation Polish Assault previously, but otherwise unreleased publicly. The finale of the song returns it all to the breakneck pacing it saw only briefly earlier, and allows Marcin “Martin” Rygiel’s bass to appear for one of the only times it is audible on the record (an unfortunately common truth particular to extreme metal subgenres), that gives the song some very clear punctuation.
“Blessed” almost eases into place after the title track, with the actual playing speed undiminished, but the feel of the tempo seeming to connote a lesser emphasis on it–which does actually make Vogg’s riffs all the more blinding for their solitary choice of speed. Vitek and his brother blurr into a chaotic whirlwind as the first verse is introduced, Sauron’s voice blurring into the low end of the song fantastically. Vogg is given the briefest of spotlights, alone in the left channel, to which Vitek responds with deep thudding finality. After a low-end focus in the second verse portion, Vogg’s riffs seem to flash alongside as if they are the flames licking the sides of a rumbling engine–be they painted or real. There’s a wonderful breakdown of riffs that seem to stretch instead of chugging independently, buoyed by Martin’s matching bassline. Shifting tempos and movements are defined by a variety of riffs and drum beats. The ending speeds the song through a clearly locked snare and then charging riffs. Vogg drops a brilliant solo composed almost entirely of bends, that finally claims to an apex of bends. The way Vitek lays splash, ride, and snare over his rumbling engine of double-kick is something to behold, as if you could see him speeding beyond his bandmates, utterly unaware as they would seemingly need to struggle to ever catch up.
Also given as the name of the compilation of their demo recordings (which also contained a version of the song, as well as numerous others later re-recorded for this album), “The First Damned” washes in like a thickened tide, building from Vogg’s isolated guitar to a full-stereo sound from him and Vitek. The main riff comes along and it’s a long stretch of tremolo picking that gives that wonderful “appearance” of a single strike being held (almost). The pacing is actually reduced in large part for this one–Vitek does not actually drop to simple blast beats, but his beats are less dominated by double-kick then they have been to this point. The second riff is lovely and bendy, seeming to pose itself as a question in response to Sauron’s vocals. The track has the most “normal” solo on the album, in that it is not defined primarily by the “tap” method of playing (wherein the player taps his or her fingers on the strings of the guitar using the picking hand, rather than picking them with plectrum or fingers). It’s a delightful solo, which seems to act as a sudden spike in the established riffing, increasing speed and range, even as it, too, seems a bit “slow” as compared to the rest. The leads are also a bit more melodic in the track, though they give way to another isolated, left-channel riff that acts as herald to the forward rush of the song’s full return. It’s also unusual in its ending, allowing a sustained hold to ring, rather than fading or stopping abruptly.
Somewhat inexplicably, the lyrics to “Way to Salvation” are not printed in my vinyl or CD copy of this album, but that doesn’t reflect on the song itself. A nice balance of hand and foot drumming is marked by a scrabbling of riffs from Vogg. His guitar is practically unleashed as Sauron’s voice enters the track, seeming to splay and rush in all directions. The lead is one of the best full leads on the album, climbing to higher pitches than Vogg normally favours, and being possibly even double-tracked for a semi-harmonized stereo effect that is exaggerated by the guitar track’s absence in one channel prior to this effect. Vitek gets to throw in a fill that shows off his skill without breaking up the song, even as it does bring the song to a slowed tempo as if pulling at the reins–Vitek’s drumming is slowed for what might be the only time on the album, as is Vogg’s solo, which seems to be throwing in the exertion of a very steep climb as it makes its way along, occasionally stopping at a “plateau” for a seeming aside to listeners, sounding just slightly like the “Egyptian” tones of Nile for a moment, but regaining its own spirit, which has the slight pinches and squeals of Azagthoth-style³ soloing hidden in it. A semi-hypnotic, still slowed ending follows from this and is allowed to simply fade out, which seems only appropriate for the turn it has taken.
“The Eye of Horus” follows a similar path to the title track, with Vitek’s drums acting as a very strict skeleton for Vogg’s riffs at open, but filling in tendon and sinew as his double-kicks enter the fray. It’s one of the thrashiest tracks on the album, Sauron struggling to spit out his words in time. The haltingly descending riffs Vogg lays down after the first verse are absolutely fantastic, and hint at the usage a similar one will see later on in “Nine Steps”. There’s a peculiar and spiralling, chunky mid-section that ends each of Sauron’s following lines, seeming to circle itself to avoid tripping, eventually finding its gait and slinking along on the smooth tremolo we heard in “The First Damned”. Vogg’s solo is distorted and strange–perhaps even more Azagthoth-y, for its vague dissonance and experimental nature, though as is true of most, it maintains just a bit more melodicism than Trey’s usual blasts of “lava”. The outro is another fade, but it manages to include some flashes of lead we don’t hear a lot of in a single-guitarist band.
“Human’s Dust” seems to be designed to prove that the band has been holding weapons in reserve–the song drops out of the sky fully formed and thick with riff and drum, but breaks itself apart to a bare bones snare-based interlude that turns it to a near black-metal blastbeat-styled passage. Never ones to make their time signature changes and tempo shifts obvious or clumsy, the song seems to shift and change them more readily and constantly than the entire rest of the album, allowing for a solo that combines elements of all the previous ones–perhaps an apex in style, if not flavour. It bends, taps, squeals, and slides along into airy blasts of tremolo arm modulated gusts. 
Ah, “Nine Steps”. The only rest we’re given before it is the pummeling pounding of Vitek on toms and snare, which lead into a similarly isolated riff from Vogg that is dragged into the maelstrom by Vitek’s slide in on the ride cymbal. The song takes off, Vogg racing over the top of it with his amalgamated lead and rhythm riffing, a few hints of Slayer-esque riffage that are then buried into a more Decapitated-signature sound. There’s a sort of skating riff over an unusual drum beat composed of tight hi-hat rhythmic hissing, which is completely unexpected at this point, yet utterly fitting. But in all of this, the lead is to the best riff on the album: at about two minutes in, the song climbs ever upward and then zooms off, building intense energy that isn’t clearly anticipatory, seemingly resolved by the booming of Vitek’s drums announces the high end tremolo riffing of Vogg. He lays out a stupendously blurred solo that seems to slow the song down to a chugging riff that repeats to only the hiss of ride before the briefest of pauses, hovering on the brink, then leaping off to zig-zag from channel to channel as it descends. The riff is a sudden change in feel and that brilliant moment before it drops down only serves to make the drop that much more delicious, ending the song on its third repetition, quite abruptly.
As is often the case with metal bands, “Dance Macabre” appears at the end, not unlike “The Flames of the End” appearing at the end of Slaughter of the Soul, though this more closely resembles the booming, ominous synthetic inclusions of black metal bands, such as the earliest moments of Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. It functions best as an outro, of course–it would come off strangely, at best, in the middle of the album. It is a nice vent for the heat the album has built to this point though–moody, spooky, like a cult horror soundtrack (hence the association with “The Flames of the End”).
The vinyl includes the previously international-only (don’t ask me which international–maybe their home Polish version lacked it, or Earache’s home UK, or the U.S. version, or maybe none of them–it’s not a genre prone to meticulous record-keeping, to be honest) cover of Slayer’s 1988 South of Heaven track “Mandatory Suicide”. Our Polish boys speed it up only slightly, and give it the more full crunch of death metal–somewhat “thicker” than the mid-high orientation of late 80s metal production and thrash metal in general. Sauron’s voice continues to be an interesting surprise, especially when compared to the already somewhat higher pitches of Tom Araya–nevermind when compared to the booming rumble of our young Polish lad. As “bonus tracks” go with covers–there’s not much to say beyond the quality: it’s a nimble and appropriate cover, that manages to blur their style in with the original, neither laying an overt kind of mutated claim to it, nor merely servicing it.
Decapitated’s biggest claim to fame I have thankfully left out until now: At the time of recording, Sauron was 17 years old, as was Vogg. Martin was 15. And Vogg’s little brother? Vitek had just turned 15 himself. As if that wasn’t “bad” enough, they recorded and released their first–very professionally performed–demo two years earlier.
This is a ridiculously professional, well-played, well-recorded, and well-written album–it can easily stand next to seasoned professionals, and clobber almost any starters. It doesn’t make a big deal out of its technicalities, nor fail to achieve them in the first place. If, indeed, it’s not so complicated as it sounds to my unprofessional ears (though that is one thing I’ve never heard contested about the band, even by the snobs), it’s still well done enough that it sure as hell sounds like it. And that’s an unbelievable strength, especially in a sub-sub-genre like “technical death metal”. And no, I didn’t make that up. It’s occasionally crossed with (indeed, sometimes synonymous with) “brutal death metal”, a designator that generally indicates the unfamiliar should be wary, as much of what I’m still wont to call “wankery” is likely to be present–that is, the masturbatory self-indulgences of proving technical skill. While Decapitated may prove they have exactly that, they don’t do so at the expense of songwriting at any moment on the album.
I may have softened to the idea of “brutal” or “technical” death metal in general–or, perhaps, Decapitated helped it to grow on me in the first place. Certainly, it was because of Sauron’s constant appearances in Immolation shirts that I eventually picked up that incredibly excellent band that occupies the same genre-space–even rendering my favourite “tech-death” album of all: Close to a World Below. They also helped to refine my taste in death metal, to direct me somewhat toward what I would like later, and away from the sinking notion that, in my limited ability to explore (as well as the handful of recommendations I had to receive then), I was stuck with the “gore-porn” lyrics that once defined death metal (I’m not a Cannibal Corpse fan, though I do love the heck out of Carcass). Despite the name, Decapitated effectively never touched on this–their album titles as well as their song titles seem to make that clear, but I’ll state it openly here as well. They’re lyrics that reflect–well, misanthropy and nihilism, perhaps most explicitly stated in the title track from their second album: “Nihility (Anti-Human Manifesto)”–there’s no sense of elitist dismissal of others, so much as full-on, general misanthropy, and blame laid at the feet of an all-too-deserving human race.
I also can’t say enough about Sauron’s voice: it defines much of what I want out of a death metal vocalist, as he sounds somewhat inhuman, but not as if it’s a strain so much as a shift in gears for him. Some vocalists grate, others are ho-hum, but Sauron’s perfect blend–sometimes criticized for this–manages to insinuate itself more completely into the band’s music and function perfectly on that level.
I know, as always, my endorsement of a metal album is meaningless to metal fans and worse to those who hate the genre, but this album receives my highest recommendations all the same. The band wandered into entirely different territory that was hinted at with The Negation and fully realized after Sauron was replaced by Adrian “Covan” Kowanek for Organic Hallucinosis, furthered yet by the exit of all but Vogg for 2011’s Carnival Is Forever. Of course, the interceding years were distinctly unkind to the band: in 2007, a bus accident left then-vocalist Covan in a coma, and killed the 23-year old Vitek. Sadly, this is now the new face of the band’s immediate introductions. Would that we were still just talking about how young they all are.
In any case, if you are willing to look into a full-fledged metal album and its aggression, give this one a spin–if you’re open to the idea, there’s no way it could disappoint.
¹Interestingly, Vogg auditioned to be the second guitarist for Morbid Angel, after Erik Rutan left to take on Hate Eternal full time. Funny, these “full circle” things.
²If you stop and peruse those reviews: welcome to the online metal community. Never will you find more harsh critics determined to convince others of the quality of their taste, and their superiority to almost any offering. Strict personal rules are applied vindictively, and no leeway is given to…anything. I didn’t last long, taste-wise, in such communities. I never do. Still, you will find that, barring the absurdly negative reviews of Nihility, it ends up just below Winds of Creation. Their (adjusted) scores are approximately 86% and 93% respectively, which also lines up with anecdotal experience of opinions. But, seriously, I don’t recommend dealing with the self-important nonsense that bleeds into that community endlessly. It’s tiresome posturing and pissing contests in almost every internet incarnation. When I saw Decapitated live, however, it was the most polite show I’ve ever been to, despite them playing along with Suffocation–unlike the more popular forms of aggressive music, everyone was given space and allowed to go about things in their own way. 
³Trey Azagthoth (aka George Emmanuelle III, no I’m not kidding) is the guitarist for Morbid Angel. He refers to his solos as “lava”, at least with respect to the compilation of them entitled Love of Lava.

Day Fifty-One: Darkest Hour – The Eternal Return

Victory Records ■ VR495-1

Released June 23, 2009

Produced and Mixed by Brian McTernan

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Devolution of the Flesh
  2. Death Worship
  3. The Tides
  4. No God
  5. Bitter
  1. Blessed Infection
  2. Transcendence
  3. A Distorted Utopia
  4. Black Sun
  5. Into the Grey


After a forced hiatus (stemming from borrowed cars and loaner couches), I am in a position again to write here and take up where I left off. It was fortuitous in many ways that this came when it did, as it gives me a chance to try to put into effect some ideas I had for how to go about this process.

Darkest Hour is one of those bands I found myself listening to more by chance than almost anything else. In the midst of my earliest experiences with metal–wherein I was leaping from the then-popular “nu-metal” acts straight into extreme metal of the “death” variety–I was left somewhat rudderless, but still quite fully powered. I turned this way and that, able to listen purely for enjoyment’s sake and nothing else, as I gathered up the sounds that I liked without regard for community reputations, obeisance to or violations of trends or traditions, and without even internal expectations. It was a nice time in this respect–one soured quickly by my first community of musically-oriented folk in the heavier direction. The scattered voices I heard prior were also similarly isolated, and shared that lack of socially inflicted focus.

It was about ten years ago, of course–“The Sadist Nation” had been dropped digitally (before that was actually “a thing” of complete normality), and it perked up my ears. I was still only recently introduced to At the Gates and so the “Swedish sound” was still new to me, and Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation was quite enjoyable. Of course, it was somewhere around the beginnings of political awareness, too, and 2003 was a moment rife with subject matter for a band whose metal sound was the kind fused with the political consciousness of the hardcore scene (hence “metalcore”). It was a lengthy album,¹ and a relentless one–the songs blasted out until the instrumental closer, “Veritas, Aequitas”, which was a 13-minute (!) ‘epic’ (if you can pardon the usage of that word in this day and age) that employed the guitars of Marcus Sunesson of The Crown and Peter Wichers of Soilwork, both Swedish bands in the style the band has employed throughout their career. Indeed, At the Gates’ own Tomas Lindberg and Anders Björler appeared on the album (in “The Sadist Nation” and “Misinformation Age” respectively), and even Slaughter of the Soul producer Fredrik Nordström acted as producer for the album.

I worked my way backward and around the band, eventually snapping up a copy of the label Southern Lord’s reissue of The Mark of the Judas on clear vinyl, mostly on the back of the beautiful “Part 2”, an instrumental, cello-driven piece the band did on that album. The follow-up to it–the album just prior to Hidden Hands–was So Sedated, So Secure, and has always struck me as the most “straightforward” of their albums, containing no notably, obviously exceptional pieces (ie, like “Part 2” and “Veritas, Aequitas”), and a lost thread as the Devin Townsend produced albums that followed (Undoing Ruin and Deliver Us) broke the band even further into melodically-heavy tracks and abandoned the very hefty runtime of Hidden Hands.

When they returned to the hands of producer Brian McTernan (who produced The Mark of the Judas and So Sedated, So Secure previously) for this album, it felt like a leap backward in style–not necessarily backward in the negative way so much as an indication of a return to the riff-oriented, consistently heavy and aggressive style they’d begun to slip away from with Undoing Ruin and Deliver Us. Not a surprise, I suppose–McTernan’s own ties are more into hardcore, and he has also produced a lot of my more recent fascinations, like Snapcase, Cave In, and Piebald.

“Devolution of the Flesh” rides in on wobbling squalls of distortion and pounds in with the ever-consistent and omnipresent drumming of Ryan Parrish, who has always had a style that fills out tracks more completely than a lot of drummers choose to, not so much in the relentless fill style of Mastodon’s Brann Dailor (if you don’t know–Brann notoriously can’t seem to let any beat pass without a fill that modifies it just a bit) as it is just a very fully-formed and performed beat. Mike “Lonestar” Carrigan has taken over lead guitar duties from Kris Norris, but a large portion of the song is based on riffs and forward movement from them. It does have a bit of a pull in a lead  that never quite reaches a solo, and instead feels more like it’s attempting to break away from the riffs. John Henry’s cries of “You’re a plague, you’re a plague/And you feed off the youth but it won’t keep you young”, leave him in the more quasi-personal, but possibly political range they occupied on the last two albums (though one is inclined to belief that prior address of “you war-pig fuck”, for instance, on said prior albums had a specific object in mind). Henry’s voice is fully developed by now, which makes the final closing note that matches his last yell of “You’re a plague” stop the song on a dime, quite authoritatively and juicily.

There’s a favourite guitar trick of the band’s (based on its relative commonality, I’m guessing it’s that of founding rhythm guitarist Mike Schleibaum) in “Death Worship”–an opening guitar that comes in for a moment with the band as a whole but drops to one channel (in this case, the left) and plays off the song’s primary riff with no accompaniment, the sound deliberately thinned to emphasize this and thus underscore the re-introduction of the rest of the band when it ends. When the charging riff and Parrish’s pounding drums come in, the sort of folk likely to say “These songs all sound the same,” are likely to open their mouths–which is really what I mean about the album: it’s a return to consistent kinds of songwriting, not in the sense of uneven quality on previous albums, but in a greater expansion of sonic palette (including the strange, ideologically questionable but largely successful moments that John actually sang, in a sense, on some tracks). The drop to a single channel guitar is employed a few more times in the track, as it allows the riff to be highlighted before it becomes part of the song’s entire sound. It’s a signature move, really. There are still threads of the extreme melodicism that Townsend’s production introduced to the band, with Carrigan’s two-tone see-saw lead that draws the ending half of the song outward most clearly echoing this, even if he was not present for those sessions.

There’s nothing quite like a good latter-day hardcore or death metal wordless roar employed correctly, and “The Tides” makes use of one, Parrish giving just a moment’s reprieve from the aggressive riffing to allow John Henry to open his throat and bellow over the firmly rhythmic riffing that is so indicative of the band’s style. A flurry of tremolo riffing and climbing chords draws clear and very solid lines behind Henry as he does some of his most tempo-defying vocals, pausing between lines, and holding them despite the rapid and clear beat Parrish (as ever) puts behind him. Carrigan gets to drop his first solo–the kind that Norris used to lay into the band’s tracks on previous albums to the joy of many. It’s a full set of tapping waves, and leads into a solo from Schleibaum that more closely resembles the distinctly blues-based approach of 70s heavy metal–bends and high notes, certainly, but more picked strings than tapped ones. One of the best parts is hearing the sneer enter John’s voice as he howls out the final words, echoing his prior chorus ending ones, but taking them further:  “And you fool and you fake/Like it’s all been arranged/And you wax and you waaaaane”–and you think it’s going to go on, but it just ends on that last word, and somehow it makes sense afterward.

I do believe “No God” was released prior to the album as a lead track, and made clear to listeners (me, at least) that the album was going to be riff-heavy again, with the furiously mechanical drumming of Parrish drawing a clear tempo for the song under the strongly defined chords of the introduction, rapid bass kicks turning to a blast beat and Schleibuam and Carrigan cramming as much as they can into each of his beats. The chorus, though–as is often the case with metal, a distinctly irreligious (to put it mildly) tone develops: “Keep waiting, keep waiting for”–and then the song drops, not to a breakdown, but to the booming of defined and clear beats: “NO God to release you/NO God to make you fall to your knees” which a lightning fury of falling fingers brings back to verse. The sudden change in feel, the squealing guitar lines and double-tracked vocals on the first two words seem intended to leave no doubts as to Henry’s meaning, though the song actually marks the appearance of a beautiful and somewhat unexpected solo: the rising wave of flowing tremolo picks that seem to crest like undulations in a surface that remains unbroken, the higher notes curved off to avoid any sense of piercing. While the stick-poking provocation of the song might’ve been at least a partial motivator, it also makes sense as a single track when Schleibaum’s sizzling solo wails its way out and establishes, finally, the band’s sound for the album. When Henry finally starts repeating “There’s no God to bear your burdens/There’s no God/There’s no God/There’s no God/No, it’s all an illusion”, it feels like an antitheistic declaration in anthemic form.

“Bitter” is a blistering blur of a minute and a half, at first seeming it will be a continuance of the threaded melodies in thrash, but it’s beaten into an absolute flurry of aggression after only twenty seconds, the kind of song that screams “mosh pit” to me, even as a non-mosher–it would describe the chaotic swirl of the worst of slam dancers happily and easily, even sliding in the vague atonal squeals of a Kerry King style-lead for a few moments.

“Blessed Infection” has a great opener, pounding down a slowly falling melody, then turning to the brief, near-staccato chords Darkest Hour knows best, though Carrigan infuses them with some clear lead playing. Another strong contender for tracks to lead with, the centerpiece is a pair of closely tied solos that again exhibits the two different playing styles present–but it also leaves room for one of my favourite games in music–is this a typo or a clever indication of how flexible English is? “Contagious and spreading/It’s blessed infection”–is that a deliberate contraction, or a mistaken possessive? Either works–even works in the context of the lines surrounding it.

“Transcendence” is the song that most appealed to me in-and-of itself when it appeared, the chugging rumble of Parrish, Paul Burnette’s bass, and one guitar riffing low is used as backdrop for subtle sparks of guitar that seem to draw arcs instead of lines between the beats, as if they are weaving over and under each of them. That they are done in that almost-immediately-muted riffing style Schleibuam has always favoured only helps the impression that they are trying to sneak in between beats. “It’s a self-made misery/It’s a blatant blasphemy/But all we need is a little transcendence to mend us/But all we have is sedation that numbs all our senses”, Henry comes as close to singing as he ever does on this album–it’s an excellent chorus, not reaching too far outside the bounds established by the instruments, while still rising enough to be phonetically punctuated with emphasis on each monosyllabic word. A subded, watery moment part way through that is hammered back down by clearly spaced instruments gives the whole track a greater balance, too, without, again, losing track of the song itself.

Recalling the relentless anger of Hidden Hands, “A Distorted Utopia” has one of the absolute best riffs on the album–it’s very light on interest in melody as it starts, Ryan’s drums consistent but polyphonic and heavy. But it’s that riff dives below the surface and tugs rapidly at the lower end, rising only slightly to halve its speed and undercut its own height with a firm and definitive set of low notes. It’s the kind of riff that drives metal’s best “heavy” moments–not a completely standard, tired trope, but one that is both familiar and viscerally engaging. Carrigan puts in another of his smoothed out liquid solos that won’t break the surface, and it ends with the scattered, jagged guitars of a momentary breakdown that avoids the archetypal one of modern “hardcore” to remain relevant to the song.

It’s another recall of the consistent tone of So Sedated for “Black Sun”, Parrish drawing a clear and largely “simple” beat that Schleibaum, Carrigan, and Burnette leave inviolate, vines and ivy crawling across it as decorative rather than defiant in their more varied tonalities. The two guitars pair up for a dual lead solo, but keep the actual pitches rather in check, higher than the rest, but sticking within a reasonable range of each other, or at least not making too sudden a jump at any point.

There’s honestly no chance, I think, that Darkest Hour can ever top “Tranquil” from Undoing Ruin as a closer, as it deals with the drums in one of my favourite ever ways–the kind that will inspire the desire to pound out the rhythm alongside it, much like one might feel the desire to punch the air in expression of extreme joy or success. It’s interesting, though, that “Into the Grey” musically straddles “Tranquil” and Hidden Hands closer “Veritas, Aequitas”–it’s a normal length, fully vocal song, but it has the rising tones and pulsing drama of “Veritas”, as well as the alternating aggressive, “normal” passages of “Tranquil”. It has the appropriate sense of final drama to close the album and is utterly appropriate in its placement, the kind that fills a room and spreads across it, drops in a note of menace and threat in its final moments then just hangs and lingers when it suddenly ends.

Darkest Hour, I’ll admit, tripped me up when writing–who amongst those who read this would find either gratification or even perverse confusion in my ownership of so many of their albums? Who would think “Of course”, or “Why in the hell…?” on seeing that, rather than maybe “Oh,” or “I have no idea what that is”? It was, then, somewhat lucky I found myself in a forced hiatus now–how, in particular, was I to touch on this band, one I know will not ring out with the non-metal folks, of whom I know many, or with the metal folk I do know who don’t even have this name bouncing around much in their circles?

It called out for a re-arrangement of my approach to writing about an album–it’s exhausting and frustrating to try to literally describe an album as it happens, and sometimes feels like a lot of effort for an end result of questionable value to any reader, as well as the kind most subject to both “correction” or disagreement in the least helpful of ways–my description, written as factual explanation, failing to coincide with another’s experience does little to elucidate why it is I’m listening in the first place. Certainly, I attempted to weave commentary in as possible, but it made the act one of a kind of dread. Darkest Hour is a comfort to me, in a sense–their albums are all ones I enjoy, and none run off into territory that feels unlike the band, though they mark themselves out as separate quite readily all the same. Ending up finding all of them on vinyl that was not only coloured but coloured differently for each release was truly gratifying.

I remember passing “The Sadist Nation” to a group of hardcore-complainers (that is, complainers about hardcore, not people who were hardcore about complaining) nervously, wondering if it exhibited all of their concerns about the tiresome clichés–though it has a sort of “breakdown”, it passed muster, even as it fell out of favour for being too in keeping with the ever-melodic sounds of Sweden (that it has vocals from Lindberg wouldn’t help that notion). I also remember the worst review I’ve ever read on the perennially internally-inconsistent AllMusicGuide (which has a habit of saying things like “A really great album” and then rating it 2/5–indicating sometimes someone other than the rater is writing): it dismissed Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation on the grounds that John Henry’s death metal-inflected hardcore yelling (it’s very dry, somewhat hoarse, and is closer to an amplification of hardcore styled barks than it is the inhuman growling of death metal) sounds like it does. It was quite useless in this respect–as if someone said, “This Bill Evans album is stupid because I hate pianos.” Well, that’s lovely–someone who has interest in a style or genre that is known for that very instrument could warn the unfamiliar that it sounds as such, then evaluate the material in that context.

It was the only complaint I ever felt was worth sending AllMusic, as it was the most worthless review I could imagine–and a very strange blot on their discography on the site: one and a half stars amidst largely positive reviews that stay at 3.5 and 4 following it (though the reviewer who tackled So Sedated shared my feelings about its rather lackluster songs–similar to my sentiments about the Foo Fighters’ One by One, but that’s something else entirely).

In any case, this is probably not the first album I’d suggest to most people looking into this band–even of the post-Kris Norris (for some reason, vaunted as the only reason the band was ever worth listening to, which I’ve found ever-confusing, as it seemed to only apply on 2/3 of the albums he appeared on) set, of which I’d first suggest the last entry, The Human Romance. They’ve always been a very sincere band, though–not feeling like they are trying too hard to reach metal folks, embrace hardcore, or otherwise be anything they aren’t. John Henry’s early look was very short hair and thick black-rimmed glasses (though he’s now seen without those frames and with long hair)–and they’ve been seen on tape discussing Sex and the City, with fun poked at each other but little judgment. Their appreciation of their Swedish forebears was obvious in sound, but embraced openly with all the choices made for Hidden Hands. The Eternal Return, though, is a bridge backward to link the Townsend-produced albums with the material to follow.

¹I do have it on vinyl now, and I own most of Darkest Hour’s oeuvre on vinyl–it’s the only 2xLP, though Victory did press it with the re-recorded version of “For the Soul of the Saviour” that was on the deluxe edition CD re-release of the album–but that isn’t at all what pushed it over the edge.

Day Fifty: Cursive – Burst and Bloom

Saddle Creek ■ LBJ-35

Released July 24, 2001

Produced by Mike Mogis and Cursive
Recorded by Mike Mogis
Mastered by Doug Van Sloun

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Sink to the Beat
  2. The Great Decay
  3. Tall Tales, Telltales
  1. Mothership, Mothership, Do You Hear Me?
  2. Fairy Tales Tell Tales

If one checks back, one finds that I actually stated my next item on the block would be Cursive’s Happy Hollow. However, as I sat for a moment and considered that I had a Record Store Day exclusive on coloured vinyl (marbled yellow) and that release was one that was singled out by a friend (the words “so good” in a few incarnations came up, occasionally with profane emphases) as quality in the career of the band…I considered that perhaps I could once again write about an EP released by a band from whom I also own a full-length LP. Most pertinently, I guess, my good friend Brian–one of my most reliable folks for discussing music, which can be difficult for many in light of my erratic listening habits–is the person I most strongly associated the band with.

A few years back (around 2010-2011), an FYE (I apologize if the name shoots a dart of cold through your heart, fellow music aficionados) was purging a veritable truckload of bizarre, seemingly random CDs from numerous sources. In and amongst them were both a slew of the uninteresting and small dotted points of curiosity and excitement. I walked out with stacks of albums from numerous bands, some of which I had a bit of familiarity with (like Converge), others I’d never heard of but would come to like quite a bit (Manchester Orchestra, Hot Cross, Coalesce, Boysetsfire, The Dismemberment Plan), some I’d heard of from my dad but never listened to actively (John Hiatt, Peter Case, Bruce Cockburn), and some I had heard from other sources and couldn’t assign any sound at all despite this, like The Fall of Troy and this band–Cursive.

What I found myself holding first was actually Cursive’s Happy Hollow, which seemed like a find when it jumped out at me, but became the ever more enthusiastic matching pair and then set when I found The Ugly Organ and Domestica. I was enthralled pretty quickly, and slowly gathered singles and split releases, but alongside them–and first–Burst and Bloom and Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes. It wasn’t until one of my most ambitious Record Store Days that I ended up finding any Cursive on vinyl though. This EP was the first one I’d picked up, one of a run of 1,500, and the last I’d grab before a chance meeting with Happy Hollow at a later date.

“Sink to the Beat” starts the album on a rather playful note, single notes sliding gently up and down guitar strings, and Tim Kasher’s voice metallicized with an electronic filter, the subject somewhat “meta” as he sings: “I’ll try to make this perfectly clear I’m so transparent I disappear/These words I lyrically defecate upon songs I boldly claim to create”. His voice stops and Clint Schnase’s drumming joins, loud but recorded as if with a single microphone and in the corner of a room. If we were unsure that it was Schnase, Kasher erases any such doubt, his voice no longer filtered and the drums no longer far off or single-mic’d: “Clint steps in to establish the beat 4/4 hip hop and you don’t stop/This unique approached to start an EP intended to shock, create a mystique/A cheap strategy, a marketing scheme building awareness for the next LP”–it’s a musical version of XTC‘s Go 2 album cover.
However, unlike that (terribly fun and clever) Hipgnosis-designed cover, Kasher is speaking for himself, and begins to wave the description of the music into the song itself. Where Hipgnosis took an intentionally neutral but confessional tone, Kasher’s is conflicted and emotionally bare (as his words and voice usually are, to be fair). He compares the group to others (Fugazi, Shudder to Think) and to a local scene (the early 90’s in my recent haunt of some years–Chapel Hill). His voice is near monotone, listing as if about to run out of breath, but it suddenly begins to gain range as he sings of the way melodies can worm their way into your head, but then questions it with the thought that they “are like a disease/They can inflame your misery/They will infect your memory they haunt me”. It blurs the lines between what he is writing (singing) now, what he has heard himself, and how each affects him and others–in fact, he transposes the use of memory and melody when he repeats the line–now memories are like infectious disease, worming their way into melodies. After that repetition, his voice is quieter, and Matt Maginn’s bass appears for the first time, the melody softening with his voice, as do Schnase’s drums: “I write these words with a motherly intuition/I shape these sounds into harmonic apparitions”. Clint speeds the beat through his words, and then leaves behind the beat Kasher first described, but he starts playing with increasing force and distorted guitar whines in. The song explodes on the force of Maginn’s booming, rhythmic bassline. The clean, sliding guitar strings are gone–in their place is the sheen of jagged splashes of distorted reverberation, reverberation that solidifies into distorted knots of mid-range lead, which disappear on a drum hit.
Stripped back to the melody of Maginn’s entrance, Kasher is quiet again, but the majority of the melody is in the newfound cello of Gretta Cohn, which rises to the speeding splash of cymbals that “Stops….and bursts under pressure…” All ride, bass-kicks and extremely restricted muted guitar chords chopping in anticipation, Kasher sings quietly: “Let it burst and bloom” and driving slashes of distorted guitar, sawing cello, pounding drums and bass roar out as Ted Stevens joins him in screaming, “Hit song!” “Let it/Burst and bloom!” Kasher yells over and over to the song’s end.

After the release of “Sink to the Beat”, we’re given reprieve in the opening moments of “The Great Decay”: forward-leaning rapid picks at single muted strings hum with potential energy, released in distorted, loud, but subdued versions of the lick, Schnase picking up a peculiar alternation of snare and bass that jerks at the song like a twitching puppeteer. “This is the bed that I have made”, Kasher cries out suddenly in punctuated monosyllables, Stevens responding, “This is the grave where I will lay,” in kind, letting Kasher finish: “These are the hands where I will bury my face”. Another set of traded lines is followed by the monotone stutter of guitar riffs and then Maginn’s bass in prominent place below a quieted Kasher, who opens his throat again before the line even ends. Cohn’s cello rides in an interesting place for a band that alternates loud and quiet like this–it’s not the sound of quiet, clean, acoustic moments, nor a simplistic expansion of the distorted guitars, it’s another thread in the overall sound, moving through the first portion of loud distortion. “Give in, give in, give up!” Stevens and Kasher scream as if coming to either climax or abrupt end, but the song continues naturally, melding the unexpected melodiousness (relatively speaking) of Kasher’s harsh voice and the crunch and dissonance of his and Stevens’ guitars.
After three minutes, the song seems to stop, but instead its taken up by piano and organ¹, the piano sounding in-room like Clint’s first drum entrance, the organ sustained on all notes and caught between the sound of a church and Vincent Price movie, electronic sounds wiggling and warping their subtle way in around the two, gradually increasing to a mild cacophony (if that’s possible) of tuning strings, squeaks and creaks.

“Tall Tales, Telltales” builds from the same sounds “The Great Decay” ended with, guitars creeping in with slightly demented singular notes that gain a palm’s mute when Clint begins to pound fervently at his snare, a near-martial sound that slowly works a bass-kick into itself. “Now and again you’ll remember the sound/Of the sails waving helplessly”, sings Kasher, and it feels like the rise of snare, cello and guitar now sounds like maybe it’s the sway and rock of a ship, threatening to completely escape a sailor’s control. The cello breaks away, mournful, and the guitars crumble, splinter and spike, increasingly distraught but calming momentarily as if broken by waves. “But they send you no sign/Hold on sailor, hold on brother/Steady the vessel” Kasher begins to sing passionately, his voice wrapping itself around the commands, as if trying to calm the sailor, though it seems like a command given from the distance of remembrance or observation, rather than direct and intimate contact. Staccato, dramatic pounding of snares and wiry guitars suggest control may soon be lost, building a tension that is eased by the second guitar, until Kasher’s voice returns, now talking about the afterlife, dead reckoning, ghosts–a sense of doom, fate, and inexorable conclusions begins to wash through it, but there’s a release, the chorus falling away slowly to rapid, muted chords, the wandering sheets of feedback, and the fade of everything else–is it relief, and what kind? We’re not too sure.

Side Two starts with “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me?” the fuzzy interference of connected circuits playing across the guitar riffs Matt answers with thick, thumping bass under which Clint’s beat drops to eight notes on the hi-hat. The guitars break free of their riff and work outward from their simple beginnings and introduce Kasher’s voice back to the record, everyone continuing on their path but now joined by Cohn, whose cello slips between them to draw low notes that ache from out of the guts of the song itself. When the next lines start (“Your starving – it’s burning for the nutrient it can’t have…”), they are ended with a clatter of strikes at guitars, jarring in the otherwise light backing.  Stevens whispers his line: “Calling out to homebase, do you read me?” Kasher continues as quiet, “Emergency: we’re floating endlessly”, and Clint’s snares pound the song back up to volume.
“You’ve been created severed from life and limb/Stranded an infant/On the front step of the universe” Kasher and Stevens sing out together, and then the song shifts into a sort of cruising territory, with a delightful flourish of a hammer-on on the guitar that ends easily on Kasher’s word: “Now lost–Forever.” Schnase gallops to the zig zagged guitars, Cohn comes in with a cello part that could easily have sounded pasted in, playing such a different melody, but instead fits perfectly into a space no one else occupies, and leaves Kasher and Stevens calling out from their astral abandonment: “Mothership, mothership, do you read me?” “Does anyone…” Kasher continues, then whispers “…hear my siren song? Maybe I’ll be rescued before too long”. His efforts to be heard (“Calling out to homebase one last time”) are countered by the response of Stevens (“The signal faded out the ship is gone”), and we find ourselves back at the chorus (“You’ve been created…”). Continuing as it did before, Tim screams the final words: “Now lost–FOR-E-VER!” and the climax holds its volume and energy clattering and crashing to a sudden stop.

The last minute of the song is a rumble of bass set to a rapid drum machine, and the brittle pulls of a rapidly picked guitar, the drum machine credited to A.J. Mogis, Kasher’s words garbled and watery and incomprehensible. While it’s coded as part of the song on the CD, the distinct pause leaves the grooves implying almost a separate “interlude” of a track on the vinyl.

“Fairy Tales Tell Tales” starts with immediate drama, Clint bearing down on his toms as Ted and Tim scratch upward at their guitars. “Let’s pretend we’re not needy…” Kasher sings over nothing but hi-hat and Matt’s rumbling bass pulse, though his words are stressed by forceful punctuation from snare and distorted guitar. Those drums nearly disappear from the next lines, though the picking of guitar strings now joins him, and the guitar and snare return. Cohn enters with rueful strings, the emotion of her cello enhanced by the rock instruments “Low lives hiding in dives/There’s no feeling drinking, sleeping with strangers”, Kasher sings and the instruments crash together, Clint now bashing at drums and cymbals, guitars peeling out slicked screeches of chords, yanking back at reins momentarily. Cohn’s cello does not leave for a moment, but finds itself spotlighted with only Maginn’s guitar and the cold, cave-echo of Kasher’s quieted voice. Clint rejoins her with the propulsive pounding of toms that brings the song back to its sonic apex in volume and power. Kasher’s words vacillate between fatalistic depression, vague misanthropy, and the strangled despair of desperate pleas for some chance and hope beyond this. “So who is it that whispers in your ear?” whispers Kasher, guitars, drums and bass answering loudly with the dramatic riff they’d not yet had time to forget, “A haunting voice blows in through the window…” he continues, and the instruments do not hesitate in again blasting out a response. Kasher sings on, but the instruments drop away as he begins the line, “A needy, pleading apparation”, only a fuzzy, periodic guitar riff staying with him, and his voice and the band explode: “Crying, ‘Who am I if I’m alone? I hardly exist at all/Let’s pretend that we don’t need anything anymore from anyone./I don’t want to feel anything anymore – Let’s just pretend.'” And then it closes, brilliantly:
The band crushes down at their now-familiar riff, and “We’ll live,” he sings hopefully alone, the splash of colour that is that riff answers, “Happily,” and as it returns to crash down, he finishes–“Ever after.”

Cursive occupies a lovely spot in music, for me. I was suddenly stricken by how much they remind me of other bands in the hardcore-inflected wave of “emo” in the late 90s, the kind that tends to be more abrasive, aggressive and post-hardcore in sound–particularly heard in another band I do very much love: Piebald. There’s a sort of shared oddity to the two: Tim Kasher and Travis Shettell (Piebald’s primary vocalist) are both quite limited singers with respect to clear ranges, but both use the stretches and cracks of that limitation to wonderful effect. Similarly, they both started from a rather more basic song structure that diversified and changed over time. Of course, Piebald ended up going in a very different direction eventually, but there’s an interesting intersection somewhere around this time.

Kasher has readily woven the lyrics of this EP into a unified whole, though with neat enough movements that it can easily be split into separate components. “Sink to the Beat” inserts personal emotion into the more concrete action of songwriting, and the calculated movements of marketing that action into a career–his intentions, his reactions, his attempts to control and failures to do so. “The Great Decay” follows a thread of this, the loss of identity and the wasted time in a world that drains both, amounting to less than is expected or intended–much as intentions in songwriting may be lost, subverted or wrested away by the moment. “Tall Tales, Telltales” shifts it into metaphorical grounds–a sailor at see attempting to maintain a vessel’s course through storm, pondering absently the thought of being “lost beneath/a substance so dark, yet elementary”, and then passes the thought immediately to keep at the standing needs of the ship. “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me?” is another kind of ship–a spaceship, of course–abandoning a crew member, and navels and “your mother’s loving grasp” melding it into more personal abandonments and losses. “Fairy Tales Tell Tales” is nothing but attempting to make something of a relationship when it feels as though such a thing is inherently impossible, that pretense is a necessity for it to work, pleading to the other to take this route, to keep sense and meaning in life.

There’s an overwhelming sense of inevitability in this, but it’s contrasted with the boom and crash of music that plays beauty and melody in, against, and even with dissonance, harsh sounds and abrasive moments and instruments–there’s hope, heavily oppressed by that feeling of inescapable failure, but hope nonetheless, stretching out a hand and begging for relief from this, believing it’s possible but unlikely to reach. It would be depressing, but for the fact that that hope seems to be consistent, lasting and determined, even in desperation.

I am glad I went with this EP–it hits something different from what I remember of Happy Hollow or The Ugly Organ (the two albums I’ve heard most), striking me as more personal and bare than either is, more intense in that sense, if not the musical one.

  • Next Up: Darkest Hour – ?

¹The album contains no specific credits, so it’s easy to place the band’s members into the roles of their primary instruments (and identifiable voices), but the less commonly used instruments–your guess is as good as mine. If your guess is better, I’m guessing it’s not a guess.

Day Forty-Nine – Needle-Scratch: Dan Friel – Total Folkore

Thrill Jockey Records ■ THRILL 324

Released February 19, 2013
Recorded by Dan Friel

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Ulysses
  2. Windmills
  3. Valedictorian
  4. Intermission #1
  5. Velocipede
  1. Scavengers
  2. Intermission #2
  3. Thumper
  4. Landslide
  5. Intermission #3
  6. Swarm
  7. Badlands

My last blog was actually named for a song by the band Parts & Labor, about whom I eventually wrote there,  and this was partly in the interest of a title that implied the aim I had, and partly as a result of my overriding love of the band, particularly the album Mapmaker. After they released the follow-up to that one, though (Receivers) I actually caught them live with my friend (and former manager) Gerald who had introduced me to them with that lasting and evocative phrase, “Music to melt your brain”. At that show, I expanded my awareness of their work by picking up BJ Warshaw’s Shooting Spires album (by his side/solo project, Shooting Spires, of course) as well as Dan Friel’s then-exclusive release (barring an extremely limited EP I am FAR too late for), Sunburn. Sunburn was a quick little release, 7 tracks and less than 20 minutes, and released on what could’ve been a 3″ CD but was instead a neat little partially clear one. It was the noisiest, strangest, most experimental side of Parts & Labor distilled, devoid of vocals, yet still imbued with hooks.

I intended to pick up the followup, Ghost Town, but things got a little maddening around that time, and it slipped by me. I did actually pick it up eventually, and it continued the aesthetic of Sunburn pretty openly, but with the increased fidelity that had begun to show up on Parts & Labor records around the same time. The tones and sounds Friel chose were indicative of the kind he was working into those records, though the solo nature of the project lends a different fele to them.

The magic of social media was the method by which I was informed that more solo material was forthcoming–a 12″ here (“Valedictorian/Exoskeleton”), a digital single there (“Thumper”)–and so when the record itself was announced, I was finally pushed over the edge by the fact that I’d started this blog, and it would mean an opportunity to talk about Friel’s solo work here. Perhaps that’s an odd reason–something like the reverse of a label sending me a promotional copy, but it was the final reason (coloured vinyl was icing on the cake, of course). I actually ordered it directly from Thrill Jockey, who were kind enough to notify me before shipping it that they were now bundling the LP with his previous 12″ (the “Valedictorian/Exoskeleton” one), and, since I had ordered both already at the same time, I was going to be getting the bundle price. I don’t know if a bunch of people did this, if it was a systematic decision, or if some kind soul just saw what I’d ordered and decided to cut me a break. Kudos to the label in any case, and you can grab the same bundle from the same link above (which I’ll go ahead and admit I recommend now).

I’ve had the record for about a week, and have been resisting listening to it because I do write here, and it seems like I shouldn’t break things in before their time here. However, I’m currently backlogged by two days in my normally more alphabetical progression, and was already planning on multiple entries for my day off anyway, so after waking up this morning, I decided I’d just go all-in with the idea, break the pattern and do so for the fact that I, for once, have a new release in advance (I’m still waiting on my copies of Eels’ Wonderful, Glorious and the deluxe vinyl for Coheed and Cambria‘s The Afterman, as well as a stack of stuff from Bill Baird, including his new album). I haven’t got much reach, but a “zero day” review for an artist I appreciate seems like the right thing to do–so I’m doing it. I’ll return to our regularly scheduled alphabet following this–hence the sub-title “needle-scratch”: this is an abrupt and sudden inclusion, and one that may mark a new, intermittent trend.

When you begin Total Folkore, “Ulysses” may throw you off a bit, depending on what you are expecting. A tone that grates in the sense that alarms do drops and holds for a moment, before a murky, distorted electronic beat begins at a very deliberate pace. Friel largely works in analogue sound manipulation, usually a keyboard with a stack of pedals all over it to modify the sounds being produced (live, at least–but I can’t imagine the studio is hugely different). This rumbling stomp is enhanced by revving squeals that all come together into one higher pitch, which gives way to the melody of the song, a catchy and appealing one that obscures the impression of purely abrasive atonal noise that the unfamiliar might be left with at first glance. It doesn’t speed the tempo of the song up much, though it is a bit faster than the underlying beat. It periodically frays into that same, unified note of noise that introduced it in the first place. Even in the space of a song almost thirteen minutes long (to call this a record for his solo work is an understatement: he hit half of that on a single song, and even that one was a good minute longer than the next longest) it’s hard to describe the feeling of Dan’s style. The melody does mutate and change over the course of the track, finding points of increased atonality and other moments of sweeter clarity. About a third of the way through, the melody circles upward like it was shot there, and some atonal pitches give way to a sort of pause: the beat dissolves into a series of foot-step like stomps, accented by fanning buzzes that rise up and disappear, shift in pitch and length. A pillar of sound that seems to shoot off distortion and pitches like crackling bolts and the seemingly acoustic rhythm of metal on glass appear and manage to return the song to its origins, enhanced by the “soloing” of that central tone’s modulations, throwing off sparks and flames as it runs forward, even doing so without the beat for a moment. It’s reminiscent of the layering of digital electronic music, strains added and removed as the song progressed, but with all the messy semi-unpredictable elements that come with analogue equipment.

“Windmills” sounds like a crowded, urban environment played at about ten times its regular speed, overlaid with the crinkled, limited bloomp of 8-bit-esque drum machine kicks and a skittering curl of melodious repetition, though the “environment” sound somehow fuses into a single buzz that permeates all of it. It’s like a broken dance track, almost, the beat still strong but the melody’s downward stroke giving it a sudden halt at each repetition.

Being the track “truly” released as a single, “Valedictorian” has all the hallmarks of latter-era Parts & Labor Friel sounds: the rhythm is built on a noise that more resembles a guitar, chugging along on a single chord for eight rapid beats at a time, though a drum-style beat is added later to fill the bottom end. The melody is the scratchy distortion of a rounded kazoo sound, though it first appears in swirling, ethereal form, undistorted, at the very opening of the song, and continues to hide in the background. The focus is pretty clearly on the “kazoo” form, though, as the “rhythm guitar” and the shortly appearing drums work at a regular pace to draw the lines underneath it. It’s interesting the way Friel uses them: they’re like a combination of lead guitar and vocal lines in the way that the song is built around them, as they seem to both draw out the melody of the song and “sing” out a rhythm that is codified to the beat established by the song. It’s worthy of its single release, being one of the less abrasive and catchiest of the songs on the album, the melody a great hook in spite of its strange manifestation. Keep an ear out for the introduction of a sort of piano-esque layer to the “rhythm guitar”.

There are three “Intermission” tracks on the album, and the first sounds largely like tuning rapidly through radio stations to create a rhythm, though it crackles just a bit too much to actually be such a thing.

A big soft-bottomed synth-style sound controls the beat of “Velocipede”, which ends up weaving something more like a set of varying melodies into its whole sound than a melody and a rhythm. A falling melody that harmonizes into a slowly rising one is around the same place in the mix as the pitched-beat synth, and has hiding in it (if one listens carefully) the viola of Karen Waltuch, which adds little bits of connective tissue to that central sound. The song seems to expand as it goes, ending in the two primary parts alternating in isolation from each other.

The introduction to “Scavengers” implies a scattered and expansive kind of track, but as all the sound collapse into each other and then out of existence, the determined poundings of sixteenth (at least) notes in rubbery bass-style keys begin to nimbly dance away in the background, as the sweeping squeal of electronic noise that is the signature of careful turning of knobs to modulate sound wails over top, the brilliant introduction of a drum machine beat gives the song serious legs–about eight of them, even if it’s only adding five beats (1,2,3,4&). It’s like a melding of pretty noises and the harder end of acid house–something to that effect. An absolute standout on the album, for its sheer energy.

The second “Intermission” sounds like a busy street corner or a train station, with the mostly clear, tube-like snakes of noise seeming to echo out alone and unnoticed–I like to think it’s the sound of someone like Friel acting as a strange, electronic busker, the crowds treating this as no different from an acoustic one. Largely that unfortunately means ignoring, but there’s something pleasing to me about the idea that someone is out on a sidewalk or up against a tube station wall playing strange, slightly dissonant (slightly in this case, anyway) electronically blooped melodies and no one is angry or swearing at the “weird noises”, but taking it as just another example of solo musicianship.

“Thumper” was released to music websites as the “single” for the album, and it’s no wonder. While “Valedictorian” made sense as an isolated physical release last year, “Thumper” carries a more distinct distillation of this album’s sound and the variegated sound of Friel as a solo artist. Another rapid beat, this one a mess of fuzz and chattering, though a booming stomp lands at a steady pace with it. The melody is piercing, gaining speed as it develops, hinting an upward turn repeatedly before it turns back down. Then the melody curls back in on itself and a new yammering beat slides in on top of the rest, shifting pitch steadily, and eventually being joined by a rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place in the more frenetic works of Squarepusher. Echoing out over nothing but the booming thump (ahem) of the low end of the beat, the melody soars out like a lone and proud beacon, but it’s rejoined by the wild yammer that carries the song off to–a sudden swipe, as if the song were wiped away.

The beat behind “Landslide” calls to mind a marching band, or at least the chest-mounted bass drum style of playing that goes along with one, though with a bit more soul than the most well-established pieces for such groups. A harmonized melody with little swirls of noise alongside it cruises in before holding, a new one developing underneath that seems to move along precociously in its simple changes in pitch. A chugging fills in behind it and fills the gaps that were left, but the piece suddenly drops all but the melody and a harsh buzzing beat in the midrange. The melody seems to almost lose pace briefly, but it’s actually an echo from another sound reproduction that’s just mirroring the melody slightly out of step. The buzzing beat, which is like a charging, riff-based guitar lead, takes over, but it’s chopped and re-arranged electronically, halting and turned up and down, the song becoming increasingly chaotic and tangled, with the melody its only rescue, played in isolation but for its companion swirls and squeals. And so it pounds off into the sunset.

The last “Intermission” has the sound of a train crossing, though interspersed with it are the tweets and bleeps of keys, a gentle and sustained, slow hum of a melody hiding deep in the background as the three beats of a sound I’m convinced is not (but is modeled after) the warnings of an approaching train insistently plays out.

“Swarm” has an introduction composed of the kind of stretched swells of electronic noise to no backing in its introduction that mark some of my favourite Parts & Labor songs, but the rhythms that follow are like an orchestra of power tools and industrial machinery, sampled and clanking to a defined beat. The melody is filled with nervous energy, trying to escape the boundaries set on it by the knobs that control its sound, attempting to work its way past each turn of them Friel gives, and seemingly succeeding partway through, a deep vibrating hum taking control of the song from below and centering its flares and tattered edges. The deep hum takes over like a rhythm guitar asserting its riff as the anchor of the song, but it all disappears in an industrial buzz.

The album closes with “Badlands”, matching a booming kick with snare follow to a melody that at first seems to just buzz and crackle, but soon resolves into a rollercoaster of melodic motion, riding up and down varying crests of electronic “bloops” that don’t seem to repeat themselves with much regularity, or even function as octave-changed repeats. There’s a kind of chorus where it disappears in favour of aggressive buzzing, making the track something like an industrial metal bit, but being betrayed by the appeal of a bright and cheerful melody.

The first thing that struck me about Friel’s solo work came from “Dead Batteries” on Sunburn, which I vaguely suspect is named because it either came from them, or because it does just sound like the limited output of a device’s dying batteries attempting to force regular work through. While the melodic style echoed the sounds he added to Parts & Labor, it was immediately apparent that nothing like the restrictions of vocal pop work were going to be applied to this music.

Total Folkore is not an exception to any of this: it’s abrasive, atonal, dissonant sounds sculpted into pretty, catchy little ditties, in complete defiance of the roars, squeaks, and theoretically grating aural palette they are built from. If you aren’t prepared for this, you might either find yourself plugging your ears too soon, or fainting dead away at the way that these two things are melded, completely without a sense of pretension or contrived experimentation. Like his prior two releases, Friel sounds like he’s making music from noises he appreciates himself, turning it into songs he likes the sound of, unconcerned with being specifically unique, or with being palatable to the point of homogenization or softening. The harsh elements, the aggressive, the speedy, the forceful–none of them really even seem like a direct and active contrast with the melodies or the catchy portions of songs, so much as part of an overall sound that just happens to be built from the two of them.  The new emphasis on rhythm, in contrast with the occasional absence and lighter focus on the last two is welcome and helps to bring a more complete and less skeletal feel to the work as a whole.

This isn’t an album that’s going to be ground-breaking in the sense of the kind you stick on a shelf and proudly look at, knowing you own a piece of history–if it breaks ground, if it holds a place it could easily deserve, it’s going to do so as it plays out of speakers, under needles, streams of binary data, under the light of lasers. It’s not going to be an album that you “have to” listen to, it will be one you want to listen to–maybe you will “have to” as well, but that will be secondary to desire, or will soon give way to it. It’s not the sort of thing you can readily expect if you haven’t heard this kind of music before, at the least in the form of bands that work it in with “normal” instrumentation, but if you keep your ears open and allow for the grating sounds to unexpectedly coalesce and become something enjoyable, you’ll find that’s exactly what they do.

Day Forty-Four: Converge – Axe to Fall

 Deathwish Inc. ■ DWI98

Released October 20, 2009

Produced, Engineered, and Mixed by Kurt Ballou
Mastered by Alan Douches

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Dark Horse
  2. Reap What You Sow
  3. Axe to Fall
  4. Effigy
  5. Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast
  6. Wishing Well
  7. Damages
  1. Losing Battle
  2. Dead Beat
  3. Cutter
  4. Slave Driver
  5. Cruel Bloom
  6. Wretched World

I’ve always been wary of the “hardcore” scene, such as it has been described and defined for the last, oh, decade and a half. What once was Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and D.O.A. was now something else entirely–something that was often difficult to relate to the music that first bore the name. Hardcore at this time was also plagued with clichés readily pointed out–the inevitable breakdowns, where the pace slowed and the riffs chugged and boomed to encourage the sense that the bottom had dropped out and all hell had broken loose, which is a difficult thing to do constantly to any real effect. At the same time, I didn’t listen to many of those bands in any detail, either. But it meant that when the name Converge was mentioned, I tended to leave them to their fans, stuck a bit in my own metal pseudo-elitism. I would periodically hear of them in a tone of reverence even from those who were more active in their criticism of this new “hardcore”, which I filed away in the back of my mind and left be for some time.

It wasn’t until I, for some reason, had “Dark Horse” dumped in my lap that my ears perks quite suddenly. I didn’t care what this was “supposed” to be according to other people–this sounded great. I actually made a trip out to a semi-distant Borders (the source, thanks to my then-employee discount, of much of my music at the time) to pick up a copy of this very album, Axe to Fall on CD. I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I ever thought, no longer left with the impression that most of the bands associated gave me–the feeling of enthusiastic but amateurish attempts to work songs into territory that was “cool”, as most clearly defined by the idea of “breakdowns”. Converge not only didn’t break down, they didn’t seem to have any of the lumps or uneven points that came along with bands that seemed to really, really want to recreate their favourite sounds, but make them their own.

I picked up their earliest albums as I ran across them, and eventually even filled out most of the gaps that came between those and Axe to Fall as time went on. About a month ago, I picked up All We Love We Leave Behind, their latest album (about three months after it was released). This record, though, I found on one of my excursions into the record stores that are (not all that) close to where I live now. I was casually flipping through the metal records and saw the distinctive cover, and the small sticker in the corner that said “Yellow Vinyl”. I’m nothing if not a sucker for picking up an album I already like when I’m told it’s on coloured vinyl–for good or ill, that often gets me immediately. Because it was used (if briefly, or perhaps even not much at all), it was in an open sleeve. When I saw this bright, radioactive, translucent colour, I knew I was going home with it regardless–and so I did. Because it came around in the middle of my transition between homes, I didn’t get much chance to spin it. Even more so, I was spending most of my time at my parents’ house, as they lived in the area I’ve since moved into, and it allowed me to establish myself job-wise while I worked out the living end of things–and playing Converge in a home that you know isn’t going to appreciate it, well, it just tends to seem rude.

The most amusing review I ever read of the album was one that suggested that the first time you listened to the album, “Dark Horse” might make you feel that you’ve suffered a mis-mastered CD, or some sort of malfunction in your player, one that has caused it to play a good bit too fast. And that’s not unfair, really: Ben Koller’s drum intro seems like it’s trying to prove itself to those nearby–“I’m fast, guys, I swear!” only it has the unsubtle tinge of actually being not just fast but clean and tight, contrasted especially with the distorted wobble of absurdly low (downtuning is nearly endemic in metal or metal-influenced musicians) bass from Nate Newton. A single note rings out from Kurt Ballou’s guitar, his pick slides back down the neck, and then his fingers fly. “Dark Horse” has one of my favourite-ever heavy riffs, a reasonably high-pitched, tremolo-picked flurry of fingers that seem to be finding the strings beneath them too hot to stay at any point for more than a moment, trying leaps as large as they can to prevent too severe a hot “foot”. Jacob Bannon’s vocals are shouted at a seeming distance, somewhat hidden in the mix as is not unusual for much of heavier music, but actually relatively clear: “For all those born to serve/And all those that chose to hide/Let their sadness be our blessing/Let their losses lead the way”, and then Kurt works up to a precarious precipice, teetering and then falling off–but not to anything like a breakdown, unless one were to forget that these typically imply a slowed pace. Now roaring, Bannon continues (“The dark horse will one day come/To free the light from all of us”), as Koller pummels the bass kicks in rapid succession. The band then sounds like the sheer power and energy of their work is trying desperately to make a u-turn back to the initial riff without slowing any or at all–there’s a short moment of scattered, slightly slowed guitar, like the beast is braking just enough to make that turn, and then they are off into that lightning run again. After the chorus–the roaring and double-kick–plays a second time, the pace actually does slow, Koller mostly hitting a steady 1,2,34 on the hi-hat, the 1s punctuated with a chord from Newton’s bass and Koller’s kick, Ballou’s guitar at only double that speed, high and jagged, slashing up and down in a zig-zag that is all peaks and valleys and no trips toward them. Koller’s snares and bass and Ballou’s guitars gradually work the song back upward, until a massive moment of breakdown that doesn’t let up the energy or force of the song to this point dissipate in service of a “moment” for the audience: it’s the crush of the song itself manifest, not a contrivance.

If you aren’t listening carefully or paying attention, the whinging feedback of Ballou’s guitar as it bleeds into “Reap What You Sow” might not clearly delineate the move into another song, even though the rapid hi-hat tapping of Koller suggests a sort of count-off. When Ballou’s riffs come in, it’s a sudden onslaught, lurching forward and balanced or propped by a rapid series of all snare hits from Koller–this is not a common sound in this kind of music, and does belie the origins in the hardcore punk segment of music, less brutal aggression of extreme metal and more the impassioned anger of hardcore punk. On an album loaded with guests, the first makes his appearance here: Sean Martin, briefly in Hatebreed, takes on the lead guitar part and backing vocals. A lovely tom fill from Koller spins the song into the verse where Martin’s guitar makes its voice heard, racing along a thin vein beneath Jacob’s roar, which sounds here–as in most places–like someone shouting full-bore into cupped hands around a microphone (no small wonder this is how he is most often seen performing). The song is most fascinating because it doesn’t seem to relate strongly to any familiar structure at all: the initial riff and snare hits suggest something that is being held just barely in check, not the beginning of a song, and the way it races under Martin’s lead after that feels normal until it’s broken into more distinct strikes, Koller’s drums trying to slow the juggernaut down as the guitars rise in pitch, pushing against the attempted slowdown. And then the lead falls down in a smooth arc back into the racing lead–which again is left to fight against the drums’ attempt to slow things down. A brief pause for a blur of otherwise solo, steady snare hits turns the song to a gallop that features Martin’s solo. A final pummeling assault that gradually gains the emphasis of relentless double kicks, roaring from Martin and Bannon and the screeching encouragement of guitars turns again to squeals of feedback.

Interestingly, the feedback that opens “Axe to Fall” is not of the kind that steamed out at the end of “Reap What You Sow”, but is instead the anticipatory kind that projects a just-turned-on amp, which lasts less than a moment before everyone follows the deliberately separated syllables of Bannon’s words: “Wai-ting for the axe to fall/Wai-ting for the axe to fall“, Koller’s drums again coming out at the end like brakes on the frenzied guitar. Ballou turns in a more subtle feat of finger-dancing, a lower, less apparent series of fretboard histrionics. Experiencing the first distinct tempo shift, the latter half of “Axe to Fall” is the closest to an actual breakdown the album experiences, but it doesn’t trade the rough edges of violence present previously for clarity and rhythmic emphasis.

“Effigy” brings in the work of Cave-In (recorded five years prior, before their hiatus began–one that ended the year this album was released), the band named somewhat strangely for a Codeine song. While Cave-In were at the end of their more accessible “space rock” phase that included a major label appearance, it was quickly turned aside for a return to their post-hardcore/metalcore roots when this was recorded, and it shows. J.R. Connors throws a more snare-oriented drumming style at the bass of the band, while Steve Brodsky and Adam McGrath use a more clean (but still appropriate) style to burn out blistering leads over the throaty yells of Bannon.

A few moments in the album are distinctly different from the short-lived (consistently under three minutes, occasionally under two) style that defines much of hardcore, and “Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast” is the first of these. A slightly dissonant but intensely distorted guitar riff plays at what now feels like a ponderous pace, creeping along to a sharpened peak, hanging and holding with threat and warning. Holding at the last, Koller, Newton, and Bannon join Ballou for a now meaty, crunchy version of the same: the pace has not changed, but now each note is bearing the weight of bass and drums behind it, Bannon’s voice the only thing not so clearly aligned with the otherwise magnetic thrum of that rhythm. Lingering distortion marks the first clear trade in vocals: taking on a rather Neurosis-style vocal, Ballou howls over flams from Koller, even and slowed. Between his lines, they all pound out a rhythmic forward movement, the second line followed by Newton, Ballou, and Bannon all expelling the words of the title in unison, pausing after each as no word is swallowed or given only half an effort. The sludge/doom sound is let free after this, Ballou’s guitar suddenly almost clean, pretty and melodic, but the pounding of toms from Koller turns them creepy, as Ballou and Bannon begin to whisper/sing (!) quietly: “The worms will find a way/The rats will find a way…” Ballou’s distortion is unleashed, as Bannon’s voice grows to its dry shout, and Ballou’s follows it shortly, the tension building and building into a final few strikes that Koller drums into a brief continuation, repeating this loop as if to prolong things, before it all turns slowly downward in pitch.

I don’t know how Ballou creates the guitar sound he does to open “Wishing Well”, but I’ve heard it a few other times, and it’s a great sound: a quavering, feedback-laden sustain, one that it appears can’t be completely steadied as it twists around itself. Allowed to play it in isolation, he is suddenly joined by Koller’s tension building snare hits, before a bass-thumping punk-style rhythm sets the song off. Former Entombed and current Disfear (a band which is currently fronted by Tomas Lindberg from At the Gates) guitarist Ulf “Uffe” Cederlund raises sheets of tremolo-picked wash over the throbbing toms of Koller, and joins Bannon for the chorus with his own voice.

Dry, palm-muted, unusually calm riffing only periodically accentuated by a sudden thrum of bass and an unintrusive drum beat mark the opening of “Damages”, implying a continuation of the kind of pace that typified “Worms Will Feed”. Koller starts the song off though, and Ballou’s briefly freed strings are turned to aggressive, more open, chunkier but still muted riffing, now anchored with the steady swinging strokes of bass on similar notes. An icing of higher, semi-harmonic tones branches out over it, and we’re left with a song that actually falls somewhere in the middle of previous tempos. Tim “Trivikrama Dasa” Cohen takes on lead guitar duty, and the feel is that of a machinistic deliberation, tempered only by the vocals of Bannon through the beginning, and those of Ballou when the song becomes a more low-end chugging toward the end, belching black smoke and menace, despite the decreased tempo. Dasa’s lead slips and slides and squeals over the final moments of the song, and of Side One, a final sludge of thudding riffs and drumming pounding out to the final note and only the brief ring of feedback.

“Losing Battle” lets Koller really shine with a complicated and interesting, shifting and rapid drum pattern, Ballou’s riffs grinding in the front but not matching the interesting drumming Koller lets loose, even when it changes briefly to a simpler and then a more rapid but still comparatively simple one (largely blast beats–snare-bass-snare-bass). Bannon snarls over the top (“Nothing left to lose”) and Ballou occasionally answers (“When I’m losing you”), the song charging ever-forward, before the final refrain of Bannon ends it: “Losing the battle/Losing the war”, and they crunch out two riffs to bring it to a dead stop.

There’s a hint of the very opening of “Dark Horse” at the start of “Dead Beat” in Koller’s frantic drumming, but Ballou’s almost chiming lead gives the lie to that notion. A brief moment of martial drumming (albeit that of troops that must be related to Barry Allen) transitions the song into its vocal portion, where Bannon’s voice is unusually melodic, calling to mind some weird amalgamation of Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto of Fugazi–the shout of MacKaye, the melody of Picciotto (all else aside, it’s not a mystery why his first band was considered emotive hardcore), with an actual sound that falls somewhere between them, too. Ballou’s guitar is melodic, too, and less abrasive than previously. When Koller catches them up in his snares (heh!), it’s only to throw them into the heat of Bannon’s shouts and the swirling aggression of more meaty riffing, the higher pitches back to dissonance and pierce. It’s very subtle when it slips back to the more melodic approach on both their parts, though–almost unnoticeable.

With a guest only on backing vocals (a la “Axe to Fall” earlier), “Cutter” is from the point of view of someone who would be described as exactly that, with the words simple and to the point, describing the emotions that actually motivate this behaviour in empathetic but unapologetic terms, not falling into the simple trap of finding it a dangerously stupid act so much as the reaction of someone unsure what else to do to find relief. The rumble of riffing is largely arranged around kick-heavy drumming from Koller, Bannon’s voice describing the thoughts behind cutting as John Pettibone growls “No way out”, Ballou allowing for thrashy flurries of squealing lead–not in Slayer territory of atonality, but brief and tight. “One way down/No way out” Pettibone shouts as the song rockets forward to its end.

The last purely Converge track, “Slave Driver” has a white noise of distorted guitar that manages to make the impossible possible: because he’s the only one playing an instrument oriented around melody, Newton’s bass is suddenly more apparent, rumbling out both the melody and deep, thumping accent to Koller’s drumbeat, though a low guitar comes along with him (mixed just below his bass, though, just fattening the sound). Bannon sings in his old school hardcore voice briefly, even, which only serves to make the cries of “No longer feel anyone/No longer fear anything” that much more frighteningly nihilistic and depressed. The song accelerates to and end of repeated abbreviation: “No longer feel/No longer fear!”

Quite unexpectedly, piano and acoustic guitar (Ballou in both cases) open “Cruel Bloom”, the first voice we hear actually that of Steve Von Till of Neurosis, effecting his best warm and twisty postAsylum (records, not mental institution) Tom Waits. The howling of electric guitar works its way in until it most clearly overlays the choral vocals of Von Till with The Rodeo, Chris Taylor, and Aimee Argote: “Lifelong victims pound and claw at the ground/Searching for a way out of their skin/Writhe in the cruel bloom”. It’s actually a rather pretty, though somber and dark chorus, especially with the emotive guitar punctuating their words. When Koller and Newton join after this chorus, the sense of Tom Waits (or a severely mutated version of Neurosis that eschews their more long-winded and progressive elements) is exaggerated. Newton’s bass is clean, thumping to the deliberate pace of simple 4/4 patterns from Koller. It’s almost like a weighed down, depressed form of Dead Man’s Bones–just to make a completely useless comparison, as that band is not exactly a familiar one to most. Von Till holds the second repetition of “Bloom” alone, his voice gaining the grit that marks the heavier side of Neurosis, as Ballou comes crashing down¹ with a roar of distorted guitar. Von Till’s voice becomes its own hoarse howl, the guitar’s own turning instead to a throaty wail. A slow of the crunchy riff and the wailing guitar extended end the song on a hanging note.

Continuing the peculiarities of the album for this band (some silly folk felt these two tracks should have been left off), “Wretched World” is largely contorted by J.R. Connors (of Cave-In) and Brad Fickeisen (of The Red Chord) on drums, Hamilton Jordan, Mookie Singerman, and Michael Sochynsky (all of Genghis Tron, on guitars, vocals and keyboard, and keyboard respectively). Chiming distorted harmonics act as a sort of clock announcing the hour throughout (it’s actually quite a neat sound and a nice effect). Electronically distorted voices murmur in the background, Newton’s bass allowed to ring heavily, before beginning to slide methodically around. Forlorn, sliding guitars wander the background, the drums only entering at the two minute mark, Singerman’s voice coming in with the nasal tinge of Mastodon’s cleaner ones (I’d say Brent Hinds’ voice if pressed). It’s a ponderous song, the drums largely toms pounding out large, emphatic beats. The advent of distorted guitars takes four minutes, but they are not used for aggression so much as the washing reverberation that distortion brings when allowed to ring out. Losing out to the chiming harmonics, Bannon’s voice enters and roars out only briefly alongside Singerman’s, the riffs now allowed to hang in the air, the song slowly fading away more completely to just the chiming harmonics, until it all falls to sustained keyboard, the holding noise of distortion and a slow fade.

The most important aspect of a metal band is not the simple obvious things–aggression, speed, the ability to “mosh” to it, so on. Of course, it may be for some people, but if those are the only necessary factors for quality, almost anything categorized as such qualifies, and some quality material is lost. But then, I suppose the same could be argued for my philosophy. In any case, some bands are labeled consistent with a sort of half-hearted but sincere thumbs up: a good four-out-of-five slapped on and a day called, whenever they release a new album. There are strong bands in this category, and then there are bands in all the wild branches of metal and metal-esque music that are something else. I can call to mind a few that are thought of this way, but those thumbs ups aren’t half-hearted, and the fours turn to fives, and the consistency is not a solid mark, it’s an outstanding one. Converge has had this reputation almost without exception for the entirety of their career. There’s the sense that their albums aren’t just well-written, well-performed sets of songs tossed out as they reach a tipping point in number or total length–the sense that, instead, they are worked and refined, until even the breakneck paced blasts of hardcore aggression themselves feel like thoughtful choices, not simple repetitions.

The appeal of Converge lies in their ability to create music recognizable as this new breed of hardcore (tinged with metal, in almost every case), but that surprises and innovates as it does so. The rhythms, the patterns and structures of the songs: they are fascinating when broken down, because they are so atypical. Even at an auditory “glance”, too, there’s a different feeling to these than comes from a lot of rather ho-hum material released under this banner.

Maybe it’s the influence of engineering and production talent in Ballou guiding the group musically. Maybe it’s the influence of art school graduate Jacob Bannon in fashioning lyrics that may tread similar ground but manage to avoid cliché or clumsiness–as well as stunningly effective and striking artwork that has graced their work from the beginning. It’s stylistically striking and distinct, like that of Baroness‘s John Dyer-Baizley, but more gritty and reminiscent of graffiti or screenprinting (which I think does factor into his method), managing to feel well thought out, designed and carefully articulated despite the immediate impressions of “simple” techniques. The cover to Axe to Fall and its colour scheme, simple and limited in palette, are appropriate and clear, and, despite their dark tenor, quite beautiful. Opening a gatefold of Bannon art is breath-taking in that real sense, as may be even better illustrated by the monochrome cover of All We Love We Leave Behind, which becomes vibrant and overwhelming when opened.

I’ve found that Converge deserves their reputation as not just consistent but consistently excellent, though, like much of metal, they require a willingness to be patient and listen carefully, to hear the way that the sounds are married into what may at first sound like a raging, rabid frenzy of untamed aggression. Their music may, in fact, be somewhat more impenetrable for the fact that it has left behind few of its roots in the barked, abrasive stylings of hardcore–even when it was punk, much of it fit this rubric. But it’s worth doing.

  • Next Up: Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Armed Forces

¹I’mt not going to pretend it’s incredibly clever, but this is a subtle nod to an early Converge album, and I feel like that won’t be apparent unless I point it out. Which doesn’t reflect well, of course, but there it is.