Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Harvey Milk - A Small Turn of Human Kindness (Hydra Head, 2010)

This past Saturday, May 22nd, was the first annual Harvey Milk Day, instituted in California to honor the openly gay San Francisco politician immortalized in the 2008 film Milk. It would have been Milk's 80th birthday were he not assassinated by a close colleague in 1978. One hopes that public schools throughout California will forevermore use the day to commemorate Milk's life and work.

Metal fans will celebrate in a very different way, with downtrodden sludge guitars and parched soul vocals. In an eerie coincidence, Hydra Head elected to release the A Small Turn of Human Kindness by Athens, Georgia's perversest sludge group, Harvey Milk, just four days before the inaugural Harvey Milk Day. Could someone on the HH staff have a particular affection for the slain gay icon? Cerebral Metalhead has cited evidence of Hydra Head GM Mark Thompson's own homosexuality in the past, but the release date seems more like cosmic serendipity.

Harvey Milk's re-released, eponymous debut, 2010

I used to believe that Harvey Milk, like their frequent comparison partners The Melvins, were in the game of deliberately confounding their audience. Sometimes they were confrontational about it, as with the harsh noise-rock of their shoulda-been debut (aka "Bob Weston Sessions"), finally remastered and give a proper release earlier this year (buy it here). Sometimes they were more guarded about their outré tendencies, as with their two comeback albums, Special Wishes (2006) and Life...The Best Game In Town (2008). And sometimes they would throw in a total curveball, like 1997's boogie-centric The Pleaser. I saw Harvey Milk play at a loft party in 2008, and their tightness was shocking. It was a hastily put together gig, but Harvey Milk played like its members had been staring at each other for 16 years straight. They were that neurotically together.

"I Alone Got Up and Left"

On A Small Turn of Human Kindness, we hear Harvey Milk in sobering, straightforward mode. Doom connotes sorrow and despair. A Small Turn feels like neither. We get only the barest outlines of the story in this song cycle -- pregnancies, tire squeals and gunshots -- but the music is all clear-eyed gravitas, strength in the face of Creston Spiers's hoarse vocals and the band's wide-open guitar moves. Harvey Milk use slow paces and heaviness differently than any other metal band -- not as hypnosis, but to ratchet up tension. Keyboards and harmonized leads in "I Alone Got Up and Left" yield a queasiness that never abates, while a track like "I Know This Is No Place for You" isn't so much sludge metal as really heavy blues music. Harvey Milk let difficult emotions sit with no foil on A Small Turn. They're doing more than just telling us how it feels to be emotionally desiccated. They're making us feel desiccated ourselves. Slap Harvey Milk on the back and then give them a hug.

Amazon (MP3)

Monday, May 17, 2010

CHAINMAIL: Locrian - Territories (At War With False Noise / Basses Frequences / Bloodlust / Small Doses, 2010)

The CHAINMAIL section reviews bands that were proactive enough to contact me directly. Here at Cerebral Metalhead, initiative is rewarded.

Ronnie James Dio is dead. I never really knew him aside from his role as a talking head in VH1 documentaries and his popularization of the metal horns. Yet the more I read, the more samples of his work with Rainbow, Dio and Black Sabbath that I hear, the more real his death becomes. While I wouldn't say that my life feels any different, I do feel more connected to the metal world because of the collective outpouring of mourning. And so I mourn, as well.

The new Locrian album Territories is ideal for this mood. The emotions it inspires are fathoms deep and unnameable. It is everything that Dio's music was not -- fuzzy, oblique, meditative, often static. There will be no holy diving to the synth and bass throb of "Ring Road." Terence Hannum, Mark Solotroff (Bloodyminded), Blake Judd (Nachtmystium) and Bruce Lamont (Yakuza), each of whom contribute emaciated howls to "Procession of Ancestral Brutalism," could learn a few things about enunciation from Dio. This music feels dry and empty, even at its most energetic. Territories is the purgatory that Dio must wait in while his afterlife is determined. Heaven? Hell? Heaven and Hell?

Locrian's last album Drenched Lands soundtracked Chicago's urban dystopia with improvised windscapes and scratchy feedback. Half of Territories thaws out the desolation by setting its improvised electronics against warmly-recorded, Ulver-like black metal storms from Judd, Hannum, Locrian's Andre Foisy and drummer Andrew Scherer (Velnias). "Procession of Ancestral Brutalism," is really inspired black metal, and I hope to hear this expanded band record a whole record like it someday. But the two disparate styles feel frictive, especially when the latter erupts out of nowhere a few minutes in to "The Columnless Arcade." It's too Dio-like, its regal drum patterns and repeated harmonies clenching triumph from the jaws of horror. I am gratified that such bold improvisers as Locrian are taking steps away from their discomfort zone, even more gratified that they're putting Bruce Lamont's saxophone to good use (his layered braying on "Between Barrows" threatens to steal the album). I don't want to be woken from my drone-drenched reverie by blastbeats though. Too much emphasis on rhythm. Give me more organ, more queasiness. Let me mourn for Dio in improvised peace and quiet feedback.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

CHAINMAIL: The March - Dead Ends and Blind Spots EP (self-released, 2009)

The CHAINMAIL section reviews bands that were proactive enough to contact me directly. Here at Cerebral Metalhead, initiative is rewarded.

Ever notice how it's easier to write metal lyrics in English than it is to communicate normally in English? Exhibit A: French post-metal band The March, whose vocalist Olivier Haese peppered his e-mails to me with minor (and adorable) idiomatic mistakes like "Would someone on your website be interested in making a review of it?" and "I haven't received the receipt that says you've got it well." In contrast, the lyric sheet for The March's debut EP Dead Ends and Blind Spots has a telegraphic pithiness to it that feels like its own dialect. "Perfect lines, artificial edges / Plastic birds, fake water around us" howls vocalist Olivier Haese on "Ancient Seed," before eructating one of The March's many awesome seabeast-themed apocalyptic forecasts: "The giant shell is on its way / Let the beast crawl over the great seawalls / And swallow them all / Now celebrate!"

"Ancient Seed"

The March have also mastered the language of post-metal. Normally I dismiss this stuff as formulaic and one-dimensionally triumphalist, but the drama here feels real. The heavy sections come quickly, like each song's lifesblood instead of its payoff. There's a dryness to the recording that keeps the shimmery clean-tone guitars leaden and creaky. They're dripping in liquid mercury, not fondue cheese. Cymbals crash crunchy and live. Haese's vocals spew electricity. Extra points for the silkscreened package, laden with seahorses. Yes Olivier, I am interested in making a review of your album, and yes, I've got it well.

Dead Ends and Blind Spots (self-released, 2009) is available by mail-order only. E-mail for your copy.