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 riffs (courtesy of a bass guitar) are so short as to appear as mere blips, and thereby bypass what a riff typically does as a recurring motif. The songwriting is concise (most tracks come in sub-2 minutes, while some are blisteringly in their brevity), yet the album as a whole feels somewhat half-baked. While many grind bands fill even the most succinct of tracks with full ideas, half of the songs herein don't feel like freestanding units so much as a blurred and bloody splat on the windshield. Moments that stand out--the roar of “how does it feel to be rejected!” on the title track, the buildup on “Hours and Minutes,” the groovy bassline that concludes (highlight track) “Skin in the Game," the slow pseudo-hook in the title track before it devolves into noise--stand out because they feel distinct from pounding elements. Namely, bludgeoning bass, pounding drums, and the aforementioned chaotic dual-vocal pattern. The assorted sound effects, ranging from dial-up tones, to weather reports, to ear-ringing squeals, constitute an outright assault. In many ways, it is these additions that differentiate individual tracks in LIFES' grind stew, and they are used incredibly proficiently throughout the maintain both interest and investment. While plentiful, the most effective samples are the bastardized Facts of Life theme, and the voicemail which ends the album--both sonically and thematically--on the most somber of notes.
And this is where Treading Water truly shines in the sea of grind. The title effectively sums it up: this is album about how it feels to barely keep yourself afloat, expending all of your energy into the mere act of survival. An album about the desperate mundanity of life. An album about all the little disappointments. An album about exhaustion and hope. An album about the inseparable dread and fear that arises when one has a family and grows older. Dave and Zak themselves sum it up far better than I ever could, and for a work so dependent on the theme, it's important to see their perspectives:
Says Dave: “On our demo, I wrote something about how there isn’t enough time in the day and we’re killing ourselves to maintain all of our different ‘lives’...that feeling has been amplified by 1000 for me since then, in having more kids, realizing we are getting old, health and financial issues and frustrations with work. I feel like I am failing at most of it and it weighs on me and pulls me down even further."
Says Zak: "...None of these themes are new. Certainly POC, LGBTQ+, women, etc. have all been dealing with what is now all in our faces throughout the world for a very, very long time. Though the world is seemingly treading water, I think more people are now aware of how awful we all treat each other...The goal is to get us all above the water, both figuratively and literally.”
It is very seldom that an album hones in on and executes thematic leanings so goddamn accurately, and this is the true strength of LIFES. The crushing quote which ends the album--”It takes time, I guess. It’s hard, but it’ll probably get better one day.”--provides an absolutely pivotal and weighted moment. It hurts. It really actually hurts, and that's something few albums under this genre umbrella come even close to achieving. To elicit such a visceral and untamed emotional reaction deserves appreciation and applause. While the songwriting can stand to be fleshed out, LIFES are working with a hell of a lot, and I'm very excited to see where they are headed. In the meantime, Treading Water comes recommended from this (emotionally wrecked) Villager.
LIFES - Treading Water was released June 28th from Triple Eye Industries/Middle Man Records/Knochen Tapes/Here and Now! Records