Lest ye readers read the forthcoming praise and subsequently turn upon us scribes in our lofty ivory tower, brandishing pitchforks and torches whilst profusely bleeding through wretched earholes, let me make something clear. Treading Water, the debut LP from Milwaukees’ two-man grind unit LIFES, is not a pleasant listening experience. Both in conventional and unconventional sense.
Treading Water is a brief but pugilistic cacophony, a squealing and burping punk-ridden grindy mess. LIFES carry themselves with the boisterous aggression, powerviolent attitude, and hardcore gravitas of Iron Lung or Dropdead, combined with the wild grinding invention of (my personal scene faves) The Locust. But sonically, the closest comparison I can draw is the vocal delivery of Liberteer's Matthew Widener. That said, both Zak Rudnik and Dave Holochwost handle vocal duties; I'm not sure which is which. Both are pretty damn excellent, it should be worth noting, and no matter who is roaring, the message comes across clear.
The ol' track review. It's been a while since we've had one, but lo, the promo bin hath spoken. If you're not in the reading mood--and really, we long-winded scribes shan't blame you--head on down to the embed below.
As a genre based in speed, aggression, and blunt-force viscerality, grindcore needs to be exciting in order to stand out from the bile-stained crowd. Brutality simply isn't enough anymore to garner or maintain interest, and that's why acts such as the wildly inventive Beaten to Death have risen through the ranks. Memorable, punchy, innovative, and perhaps a little unhinged. Necessary components all, and that leads us, conveniently enough, to the subject of today's review.
Alright, brevity seekers. Here's the rub. Embrace the Void, the debut(ish) album from multi-continental death metallers Gravefields, is a damn fine record. Thus, I'll employ a reversal of sorts: let's get the critical stuff out of the way quickly, and then proceed with the pummeling--err, of the good variety.
Firstly, the vocals could stand to rise a tad higher in the mix. And secondly, the runtime breaks the Sleeping Village Rule o' 44. With a sound so gloriously belligerent on the ears, the final few tracks leave less of an impact after Side A's goliathan entrance. Am I nitpicking? Yes. Am I finished nitpicking? Also yes.
There are two (non-original) versions of Dolly Parton's immortal "Jolene" that I can, in good faith, recommend. The first is the hauntingly beautiful 45-at-33rpm monstrosity that some madman decided, quite accurately, was a good idea. The second is Turkey Vulture's rompish take on the classic--this track being the b-side to their debut release, which descends on ragged wings at the end of this month.
The joint effort of Jessie May (of Owl Maker) and Jim Clegg (of Lobsterface), Turkey Vulture blends grimy Americana with pedal-to-the-metal...well, metal. The entire 5 minute affair is distinctly flavored with bloody punk rock 'tude, leaning into the unbiased and seemingly belligerent anger of the 90's punk scene. On single "Boxer," Jessie May's abrupt fluctuations between harsh and pseudo-clean vocals sound like the bastardly combination of Lemmy's grit and Poly Styrene's sing-song menace. Meanwhile, rollicking--dare I say bouncy--riffage leads the charge, and Clegg's wild drums lend the affair an appropriately unrestrained maniacism. "Boxer" is a cautionary tale, filled to the brim with a pertinaciously punky verve and vigor.
Promo material cites, among others, Motorhead and Social Distortion; if we're going the route of gritty leather-clad rock + rockabilly pun, Danzig and The Distillers feel like an equally apt comparison. The same can be said of the aforementioned "Jolene," which feels like a wholly unique take on the song we all undoubtedly know and love. It's fast paced, it's startling, and yet it still maintains that hooky Parton charm. This is punk rock operating at it's finest. Lastly on the docket is bandcamp exclusive track "Bee Avenger," a humorous slice o' life in the lives of May and Clegg. It's upbeat, fun, and merits inclusion if only for the grin-inducing goofiness. Punk doesn't do so well when it takes itself too seriously. Turkey Vulture can be angry and still have a good time, and that's nothing to scoff at.
Prognosis? Boxer is, like, 5 minutes. Even if it weren't so short, it would certainly merit your attention, cuz this thing is fun as hell. When Turkey Vulture's next release hits, we'll be waiting.
Turkey Vulture - Boxer will be released June 28th, 2019
Only one (praiseworthy) release to their name, and Richmond's own Conductor have already thrown a bit of a wrench in my typical review-writing process. Generally, when encountering an artist for the first time, inevitable questions arise that then allow for further analysis. Why does this music work (or not work, for that matter) in it's current state? Conductor neatly bypass this part of the process by providing two versions of their debut EP: one with vocals, and one without. Thus, the primary question that arose whilst enjoying Icarus--namely, does this brand of doom afflicted post-metal work best in a purely instrumental form--was answered by default. More on that later, though. Before we get too far into the weeds, let's talk about just how goddamn impressive Conductor are.
Icarus is an effortless journey through genre boundaries. While the majority of the 23 minutes contained herein are of the post-metal variety--expansive, voluminous, and otherwise exploratory--a distinct aggression remains a constant presence, whether lurking on the fringes or launching inward with a blackened bite. The former aspect is comparable to the softer moments of Amenra, Pallbearer, or early Sumac; the latter, perhaps, of Mizmor's abrasive edge. And yet, while they never sound directly comparable or derivative, they are in good company execution-wise. They command a delicate balance between clean and harsh vocals, between melodious exploration and emotive pugilism. And while the blackened bent is used sparingly throughout, it hits hard when called into play.
Conductor demonstrates a keen ability to move between gentle and harsh in a way that reminds me of Omega Massif's dynamism. Look to "Go to the Mast at Dawn" for a prime example of the subtle buildup and sheer cathartic release that these guys are capable of. Genre melding aside, that ability to construct a foundation and then knock it out with one massive blow is central to their songwriting chops. Indeed, this is what gives the opening track such a professional and emotionally satisfying feel. Even given their status as a doom-adjacent band, they aren't entirely focused on the riffs, but yet riffs are central to the buildup and subsequent release. Icarus opens with a nuanced and sophisticated track, and if I wasn't aware, I would have assumed this was the product of a much more mature outfit.
Most notable is the earworm quality Icarus maintains. As those who are forced to live with me may attest, I've been breaking into (horrendously out-of-tune, but heartfelt nonetheless) refrains of O Captain! My Captain! for the better part of a month. "Go to the Mast at Dawn" sticks in my head with a fierce and unpredictable tenacity, and if a track manages to hold on for so long, buffeted about by the current of a thousand promos, it's a great song, plain n' simple. The longing-yet-furious "Catch Me" has a similar effect, with each precious refrain sinking teeth deep. I wish it were a longer track simply so more of those choruses could weasel their way in, and as one who worships brevity in songwriting like no other, that's saying something. Post-metal lives (and dies) by its memorability, and Icarus has memorability in spades.
The aforementioned question regarding the role of vocals--or lack thereof--is raised by the title track itself. Whereas the vocal delivery on the bookends is fairly impeccable, "Icarus" represents a bit of a falter. The pseudo spoken word delivery, while intriguing from a narrative perspective, ultimately doesn't flow with the instrumentation. It's an awkward bump in an otherwise stellar track, and, as a result, this track flows better on the instrumental version of the EP--especially given the brilliant back half, which is a harrowing and emotive journey in its own right. That said, the remaining two tracks are heightened wondrously by their respective vocal accompaniment, and on their respective instrumental tracks, feel otherwise incomplete.
There's room for improvement in Conductor's approach, but it's worth iterating that this improvement need not come across the board. The first track here is a true standout, a prime example of the massive potential they are packing. And, as always, a little more heft in the bass department wouldn't go amiss. But all told, Conductor have a lot on this not-so-Icarian post-metal platter to be proud of. They fly high, but never plummet. Given their penchant for dynamic innovation, I'm very curious to see what they come up with next. Conductor "hopes that anyone who stumbles upon Icarus will feel something from its intense 3-song exhibition." From this particular villager: mission accomplished, and then some.
Conductor's excellent Icarus was released May 2019.