Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hydra Head roundup

I tend to assign personalities to the record labels I know well enough to characterize. Southern Lord is a pensive basement-dweller, well-read and thoughtful but bearing some appealingly dark secrets. Victory's a dunderheaded jock that never met a problem it couldn't solve with its fists and a healthy dose of emotional suppression. Ipecac is a rambunctious, snot-nosed twerp with too snide an outlook on life to care about harnessing all of his brilliant ideas into something coherent.

It's been years since Hydra Head moved on from its early A&R policy of only signing American metalcore bands whose names begin with "C" (Cave-In, Cable, Coalesce, Converge, etc.), and it's only getting tougher to subsume the label's roster under a single personality type. Well good riddance, meaningless organizing principles. Hydra Head honcho Aaron Turner would likely tell you that his only guiding criteria is to release good shit that has something to say, and with the following trifecta of recent HH releases, I'm inclined to take him at his hypothetical word:

Gridlink - Amber Gray (Hydra Head, 2008)

Back in 2000, Hydra Head released the final studio album (The Inalienable Dreamless) by one of grindcore's all-time greats, Discordance Axis. Eight years later and we're treated to two albums of new material from DA mastermind Jon Chang. The first, the Headbanger's Karaoke Club Dangerous Fire EP by Hayaino Daisuki, cranked out half an hour's worth of melodic thrash metal in just fourteen minutes. And now comes the debut full-length from Chang's long-gestating Gridlink project, which hits the fast-forward button on Reign In Blood. Drummer Bryan Fajardo (ex-Kill the Client) beats his snare faster than most death metal drummers can double-kick. Guitarist Takafumi Matsubara (Mortalized/Hayaino Daisuki) somehow plays speed metal riffs at ludicrously extreme velocities with no audible sloppiness. And as always, Chang screams like some emasculated pterodactyl. There's barely any breathing room on Amber Grey, and for its eleven minute run time, that's just fine.

See if you can handle this shit on Gridlink's MySpace page.

Clouds - We Are Above You (Hydra Head, 2008)

So apparently Steve Brodsky isn't the only member of Cave-In with a jones for un-metal side projects. Album number two from Cave-In guitarist Adam McGrath's other band Clouds skimps on the heavy, turning instead some ragged riff-rock ("Feed the Horse"), raging Motor City punk ("Heisenberg Says"), countrified psychobilly ("Year Zero" and "Playing Dark"), hardcore ("Motion of the Ocean" & Horrification") and even straight up alterna-rock ("Glass House Rocks"). It's a willfully scattershot affair, delivered with the energy and conviction of a dude with a muse too powerful to be contained by genre boundaries. Clouds turn the portentousness of McGrath's other band on its ear, going for straightforward riffing and joyful, imperfect, human vocals.  So what if We Are Above You doesn't have the staying power of Until Your Heart Stops? It's a hoot right now.

Lustmord - [ O T H E R ] (Hydra Head, 2008)

If the dark soundscapes on this umpteenth album by Welsh sound designer/ambient composer Brian "Lustmord" Williams remind you of one of those atmospheric hazes that Tool uses at some point in like every single song, ain't no coincidence: Lustmord worked on some of Tool's DVD singles, contributed to the title track off 10,000 Days and collaborated with Maynard James Keenan on his awful Puscifer project. Music this spacious and, in conventional terms, uneventful usually works as background mood music and nothing else. But in his 28 years on the job, Lustmord has learned how to charge his subterranean drones with the sonic depth and emotional resonance that almost sort of pull  [O T H E R] into the foreground. Tool guitarist Adam Jones guests somewhere, as do King Buzzo of the Melvins (payback for the Melvins/Lustmord collabo Pigs of the Roman Empire) and Aaron Turner. No clue which of them is playing where, and it doesn't much matter either -- their guitars get mushed together with reverberating synths, gong hits and distant wind howls into a slowly morphing cloud of black goo. The album's best absorbed during the evening hours for sure (DO NOT TAKE DRUGS BEFOREHAND), but I listened to [O T H E R] in broad daylight and it still creeped me out. 

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