Band: Agoraphobic Nosebleed
Label: Relapse Records
Pressing: First press, black /1480
Grindcore is still a humorously bewildering genre to many. I think this is partly due to the fact that, by definition, it defies musical convention. It takes the most extreme parts of several genres - Hardcore punk, Thrash Metal, Death Metal, Industrial, and Noise Rock (which are themselves already extremities) - and uses these particular elements as formulaic calling cards; blast beat drums, shredding bass, grinding guitars, high pitched shrieks, and guttural growls. All boiled down into the micro-form of songs that normally clock in at well under a minute. Many people dip their toe into Grindcore, nervously laugh and then leave it well alone. While in no way an aficionado, I do definitely have an affinity for this most extreme of musical genres. What some people see as incomprehensible and nonsensical, I see as enigmatic, intriguing, exciting and melodic.
And personally speaking, within this genre built upon defying convention, Agoraphobic Nosebleed have consistently been at the forefront of the pack. Musically they may not be everyone’s favourite choice, but for me they remain a shining light for two main reasons. Firstly, they remain intriguing and relatively enigmatic. Indeed, despite the band staring in 1994, they didn’t play their first live set until 2003 and then there was another 12 year wait before they played live again. Secondly, as the group have evolved and solidified a more permanent line-up, they have become a band that defy convention, within a genre that does in fact defy convention. The trajectory may have been slow, but they have evolved from the obviously fake drum machines and 8 second songs of ‘Bestial Machinery’ (which catalogues their early work) and refined their music into the ‘melodic’ and ‘structured’ approach of songwriting that graced 2009’s ‘Agorapocalypse’. In that sense it comes as no surprise that their latest release ‘Arc’ once again defies what you have come to expect from Agoraphobic Nosebleed.
First of all, Arc is the first in a series of four EP’s in which each release will let a particular band member guide the creativity in a direction of their choosing. Although Scott Hull is still the bands driving force, it seems that he wants to challenge himself musically, and in doing so has relinquished some of the control of what has undoubtedly been his project for the past 20 years. So not necessarily concept albums, more experiments in self indulgence. There’s nothing more defiant than writing records that absolutely no-one is expecting you to write. Secondly, as vocalist Kat Katz takes centre stage for this release, her particular choice of direction has been for Agoraphobic Nosebleed to write a Doom/Stoner/Sludge record. For anyone that knows anything about the vocalist this may come as no surprise, her previous band were slow Sludge merchants Salome, but in the context of Agoraphobic Nosebleed this is stylistically an entire 180° turnaround. For a band to go from blasting out songs of 8 seconds in length, to producing veritable plodding mammoths of tracks that clock in at 10 minutes is quite the change. Yet they pull it off seamlessly.
‘Arc’ as a whole piece of work is riff city. Scott Hull seems to be able to deliver southern swampy guitar parts like he ingested the whole Savannah music scene for breakfast. All the strings swirl together in a hazy, dirty, buzzing, rumbling but ultimately groove-laden syrup, while Katz’ vocals seem naturally at home, throat scorching screams and guttural growls wading through the sludgy crescendos of music. And Hull’s drum programming is genuinely next level, because it sounds so real, so human, so organic - Swamp Thing himself would be proud. Thematically it is also a change in direction for Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Katz' lyrics dealing with an extremely dark and personal subject - caring for her schizophrenic mother as she is dying of cancer. It’s dark, angry, grieving and cathartic, and not to skim over the content too much, but it nestles in very well amongst the grime and dirt of the musical structure. ‘Not A Daughter’ chugs to life in a swirl of feedback and distortion as the first of several riffs jerks into life, quite rock-laden; sludgy but upbeat in tempo with staggering drum fills and Katz grating throaty vocals. It brings to mind a dirtier Black Sabbath and Eyehategod (as eluded to in the liner notes), but also subtly of bands such as Black Tusk, Red Fang and Kylesa as you nod along uncontrollably to the riff montage. The final third of the track slows the pace and descends further into the murky swamps, turning even more into a Southern Rock inspired, staggering pace. Imagine the soundtrack to a hot Summer of whisky, BBQ, swamps, bongs and man-sized doses of LSD, and you’re halfway there.
‘Deathbed’ is definitely a composition of two halves, the first of which more in line of what I was expecting when I heard that ‘Arc’ was to be a Doom-laden experiment. It trudges and drags along for the first half; plodding, clumsy drums and droning guitar tones exercising the sort of sonic patience that bands like Crowbar or Electric Wizard have built their careers on, while Katz' vocals flip between truly guttural, demonic growls and witch-like snarling. It lurches along for five minutes, and just as it seems like it is going nowhere, about to collapse under its own weight, some truly groove worshipping guitar work completely lifts the pace and colour of the track. I can’t decide who it reminds me of more; Black Sabbath or Eyehategod, but the effect is the same - eargasmic. The doominess from the first half the track never completely leaves the aura of the composition, but it is a bright, knowledgeable and well crafted finale.
‘Gnaw’ is the final, lengthiest and perhaps most conventional in terms of emulating Sludge/Doom. It marches along at a slow, shambolic and steady pace, an experiment in dragging out riffs and drum patterns to their exhaustion. It is the Doom equivalent of the fast/slow structure from Hardcore or Punk or Grunge. Slow, plodding, pummelling movements interspersed with upbeat flourishes to break up the potential monotony. A marching drumbeat and string bending guitar riff leads us toward the middle of the piece, before some painful feedback cuts through the dirge while an eerie spoken word sample allows a truly dirty, rumbling bass riff to sneak in the back door. The track then attacks us with some brutally slow, hard thumping drums and droning guitars which slowly build and build throughout the final half of the track, ending in a collapsed heap of swirling static and feedback.
‘Arc’ will not be for everyone, as indeed none of Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s work truly is. The internet being what it is, some people have criticised it’s attempt at Doom as too generic. Personally speaking, I found it really enjoyable. I am someone that likes lots of styles of heavy music - Hardcore is my main weapon of choice, but I appreciate Punk, Post Rock, Black Metal, Grindcore, Doom and Sludge and loads of others in-between. If this sounds relatively familiar for yourselves, then ‘Arc’ is definitely worth a listen. It nods faithfully to all the calling cards of the genre, has some fun with them, yet has something personal it wants to say, and is performed by a band that make real efforts to keep their followers guessing. What more can you ask from a musical experiment?!
Author: Tim Bridges