Today’s heavier arms race grinds on, much as it was a faster competition a decade or two ago; both covering a multitude of sins for otherwise unmemorable bands. The focus on surface-level sensory overload tactics muddies the waters between alright and truly worthwhile bands. Immediate impact and memorable songwriting are often difficult to tell apart at first, though the latter is far and more valuable (and increasingly rare). Total Abuse skip right over the heavier/faster charade altogether, dealing in hard-won tension and genuine intensity instead. Their riffs are sturdy, but swaying and unpredictable, backed with stomping, imaginative rhythms. A pervasive, tight-wound, twitchy anxiety is the truest sum of all these parts, making Excluded immediately memorable and anything but novel.
The songs are each short and messy, though they never seem cluttered or shoddily constructed. It’s like an updated combination of The Stooges and middle-era Black Flag, but with way less repetition than either. A snarly urgency and surprisingly-abstract delivery keep a generally slow, loose delivery from ever bogging down. The title track and “The New Man” both shine up Total Abuse’s reference points the brightest. Despite fittingly-murky production and structures, there’s a surprising clarity to the songwriting and the underlying tension resulting from it. These are the least-catchy songs you’ll ever find stuck in your head.
A handful of times each year, a record like Excluded comes along and reminds me why I still haven’t outgrown this shit.
The artists-formerly-known-as-New-Gods have focused on EPs since arriving a couple years back. The two songs here–just shy of five minutes total–sharpen brevity into a weapon. They present a grimy, swirling version of grunge-influenced hardcore. The musicianship is both deceptively complex, and obviously tense, not needing much time to sprawl out over multiple decades and sub-genres. Both songs are firmly rooted somewhere between the mid-80s and mid-90s; Black Flag grit and Jesus Lizard angular snarl are both well-represented. But it’s far from simple post-grunge nostalgia, which there’s no shortage of these days. Contemporaries like GIVE or maybe Sweet Jesus spin a less aggressive take on similar source material. But Seattle’s New Gods feel more urgent and reckless, and these two songs find them at their best.
Meanwhile, Walleater are getting just as deep as Seattle’s New Gods, but into the opposite pole of 90s grunge worship. They’ve focused on the melodic edge, especially early Smashing Pumpkins or catchier HUM, but with a British drawl and precise production. These two new songs are shorter and more direct than I/II last year’s collection of EPs. Both songs revolve around bright riffs and catchy, lilting (but rarely repetitive) vocal lines. There are similar bands lately who come off cute, and generally less ambitious (Moose Blood or Basement come to mind). Walleater seem more ambitious, without over-complicating things in the process. This digital single has completed it’s task, as I’m eager to hear their upcoming LP
Milwaukee’s Northless have been toiling away for years, generally avoiding gimmicks while casting a wide net genre-wise. Their sound falls squarely in the earlier Isis/Neurosis school of slow-moving, but momentum-driven metal. It’s essentially doom from when doom was less ubiquitous and packed more hardcore snarl than slow-burning riffs.
Alongside a recent split LP with Primitive Man, these three new songs cover three, eight and eleven minutes each. The title track uses clean vocals and slow tempos to great effect, while short opener “The Curse of Being” runs the opposite direction. They show off genuine depth and variety, without committing the cardinal error of novel, over-variation in most current music. In an era of over-thought concepts and over-produced records, Northless packs almost no pretense while traversing multiple heavy sub-genres.
This split 7” which features two very different bands, sharing little more than a region, friendship and mostly-live production from Will Killingsworth’s Dead Air recording studio. Tyler Daniel Bean has always occupied some corner of the “emo revival”; but mostly hewed close to its densest and darkest flank. A seven-piece band, they’ve tended toward releasing more substantive music less often. “Willow pt. 1 & II” follows this blueprint; feeling droopy and dramatic at the same time.
Au Revoir, however bring urgent, organic post-rock, in the mold of early Caspian or the more guitar-driven highlights from the Constellation catalog. The vocals at the tail end of the track were their first recorded vocals since prior to their 2013 LP Black Hills, and a preview of the approach on their just-released Veles 12”. All in all, they are a much more impactful and real-sounding take on a genre that has become far too stale and soundtrack-ready.
Heavy would be hard pressed to land deeper within my own personal strike-zone. J.J. Anselmi’s first book focuses on his small-town, generally white trash upbringing through a lens of BMX and heavy music. His family and substance abuse issues–intertwined with teenage music discovery–echo my own coming of age just a few years earlier (and one state to the south). It all lands very close to home, even aside from my personal familiarity with J.J., whom I crossed paths with briefly in the Denver music scene years ago. The world isn’t hurting for documentation of coming-of-age through punk, metal, or extreme sports in one form or another. But Heavy is certainly the first full-on memoir which covers so many overlapping themes in a way that resonates well beyond any similar story of misspent summers.
The book is a personal history, but also a relevant generational story of disaffected youth taking their own winding path to adulthood. Then, in the process finding a real resolution to what so many of us rebelled against in the first place. Anselmi grew up in Rock Springs, Wyoming, which for those unaware, is rough even by middle-of-nowhere standards. His vivid account comes mostly during a familiar era of adolescence, when young people’s paths are established through a clique of close friends and the hobbies they discover together. His obsession with heavy metal and BMX riding were an escape from small town boredom and being the son of the burnout wing of a prominent family (in a town that’s anything but).
Responding to the inadequacies and thinly-veiled substance abuse of his father, destructiveness takes the place of acknowledging the complexity or depth of the hand he’s been dealt. Initially he responds with resolute teenage abstinence, and rebellion in the form of a reactionary straight edge phase. But modeling one’s life after Pantera videos gives way to experimentation, then full-on self-destructive addiction, before coming all the way back around to sobriety. All of this happens in the span of roughly a decade, but packs all the ups and downs of similar stories stretching over most of a lifetime.
Anselmi’s writing style is detailed, but straightforward narration, usually painfully honest and insightful. Plenty of clear conclusions and symbolism are baked in along the way, but a notable lack of hyperbole–even where it’s very much earned–lends a unique and haunting feel to the darker stories. It’s especially effective during in-depth tales of substance-focused excess, never glorifying, or dismissing the experiences outright. The disdain in hindsight of his specific regrets, missed opportunities and wasted time–all common to anyone with a history of lost party years–are obvious but never belabored beyond the poignant stories themselves.
Substance abuse and an underlying destructive streak have a well-known chicken and egg relationship. All things considered, Anselmi is lucky in that the same neurotic, intense self-awareness which he originally sought escape from also led him all the way back out. For him, it happens on a compressed timeline… and is the underlying theme of the book’s four sections. The relatable set of themes and strong execution of its telling in Heavy will resonate with people far beyond the heavily overlapping biographical Venn diagram I share with the author. In the end, it’s all gruesome, painfully engaging and ultimately, entirely hopeful.
Songer is the second album from Chicago’s Small Awesome, but my first exposure to the band. I’ll admit to briefly contending with a strong, specific, and mostly-negative first impression. As a minimal two-piece, consisting almost entirely of vocals and strings, their sparse delivery and lack of percussion seemed–for a brief and terrifying moment–to reek of some open mic night. You know the kind; a lot of creative hats and guys with creative facial hair telling girls about the color of their energy.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long at all, before it was obvious there’s way more to this than any objectionable first impression. There’s a slow and steady hand behind everything Small Awesome does,to go with surprising and clever depth. They shine light from every angle on a sparse, obtuse take on melodic folk music.
“Sold You Out” sets the tone as well as any song here, though it’s also Small Awesome at their loudest and most direct. Winding guitar and bass parts back a nonchalant vocal delivery, which coyly hides effective and confident execution on all fronts. The ease which which they pull it off, and the lack of percussion tend to make it feel like a rough sketch at first glance. On the other end of the spectrum, “Worship” is abstract, but not for the purpose of interlude or space-filler. It meanders along, highly conceptual but also surprisingly direct, and might be Small Awesome at their overall best.
Throughout Songer the needle is buried all the way toward the correct end of the endearing:cute ratio. The LP unfolds like a slow, grimy exposition to some long lost early Ween record. But surprisingly confident and complete presentation of seemingly-scattered ideas makes for an unlikely wire-to-wire winner.
Boston newcomers Aneurysm don’t seem inclined to waste time with foreplay on the three songs comprising their debut Veronica 7”. They mix anthemic punk rock with semi-thrashy hardcore, which winds up messy (in exactly the right way). The songs appear in short, post-pop-punk bursts, presented through choppy, ham-handed rhythms and vocals that are equal parts garbled and catchy. There’s no reinvention anywhere to be found here, and none was needed. They’ve nailed the recipe on their first try, at the intersection of catchy and noisy. Complex tones and loose arrangements obscure sneaky-simple and catchy songwriting. Try to imagine if the first Dillinger Four 7”s had come out during SST’s glory years and you’re getting warmer. Aneurysm’s first release covers less than ten minutes total, and could have caught my attention in half that time.
A decade on from their most recent recordings, Milemarker have reappeared with two new songs. Core members Dave Laney and Al Burian decamped for Hamburg and Berlin respectively, and have since recruited two new members to reassemble Milemarker all these years later. With their still-influential classic Frigid Forms Sell headed for a reissue soon, it would be hard to begrudge them a victory lap reunion tour. But both new songs here make it clear that Milemarker are, in fact, back, with an LP rumored to be completed. “Conditional Love” has them still finding fresh, new corners in their post-Devo exploration which first cracked off fifteen years ago with Frigid Forms Sell. On the B-side “Recognition” mixes icy, layered melodies with a cold, decidedly Talking Heads-esque squirm. With every other band under the sun reuniting, Milemarker seem to have actually reformed and barely seem to have skipped a beat.
Despite almost two decades separating their formation, there are substantive parallels musically between Milemarker and Kississippi. Both are coldly assertive and ruthlessly catchy at the same time. Kississippi began as a solo project for frontwoman Zöe Reynolds in 2014, but became a duo after current bandmate Colin James moved to Philly for art school and the two met on Tinder. Which, aside from any novelty, paints as strong a picture of generational gaps in band-formation as you’ll find. We Have No Future, We’re All Doomed was recorded back in January of 2015, and was presumably crawling through a record pressing queue until it’s recent release.
Each of the five songs have a slow, meandering quality, deftly crafted into succinct packages. “Indigo” is the standout track, unfurling itself patiently and effectively, but also doing it all in well under three minutes.
While the Kississippi EP was produced by Modern Baseball member Jake Ewald, fellow MOBO-er Sean Huber was busy assembling Vicky Speedboat with side project cohort William Lindsay. Their debut EP, Two Years No Basement harkens to the best elements of a simpler time, when your favorite band jumping from Doghouse Records to Vagrant passed as controversial. At their most raucous, they hit a similar sweet spot as The Thermals or Alkaline Trio did during their own first couple releases. It isn’t rocket science, but it’s still much more often attempted than successful. Catchy, heavy-head-nod pop-punk done just right may not be becoming at my age. But I’ll still be cranking it up in the car as long as kids keep churning it out, at least in these rare cases when it’s put together this well.