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.