Corrections House – Last City Zero (Neurot Recordings, 29 October 2013)
Lumbar – The First and Last Days of Unwelcome (Southern Lord Records, 11 November 2013)
Salutations. It’s Monday, and I just don’t have the energy for any of the wisecracks or silliness these things often start with, so instead I’ll just jump right into introducing today’s topic of conversation. It’s been a long time coming, but finally I’m getting around to writing about these two albums which were each released in late 2013, and which each subsequently found their way into the top ten of my Top 13 of 2013 list. Yes, that particular list did contain a total of twenty-seven albums, technically speaking, but still that’s no excuse for a delay of more than two years before getting some of these reviews done — particularly considering the exceptionally high quality of the material found here.
The two albums in question were the first to be released by two different groups of musicians, all veterans of fairly well-known bands: first, Corrections House is a conglomoration of Mike IX Williams (Eyehategod), Scott Kelly (Neurosis), Bruce Lamont (Yakuza), and Sanford Parker (Minsk), with some of the lyrics contributed by the phantasmatic “minister of propaganda,” Seward Fairbury; and Lumbar is a project led by Aaron Edge (well-known as a graphic designer, who worked for Southern Lord Records for several years, but also a guitarist and drummer who has been part of literally dozens of groups, including Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, with the addition of Mike Scheidt (YOB) and Tad Doyle (Brothers of the Sonic Cloth, formerly Tad).
In each case, I think you’ll find — as they say — that the finished product shows each collective to be more than simply a sum of its parts. But even if that wasn’t the case, looking at the particular parts involved, those would still be pretty lofty sums, no?
Last City Zero, eight tracks ranging anywhere from three to ten minutes, shows a bit more of an experimental, avant-garde side than you might have expected from some of these guys. But looking over each of their respective bands’ discographies (and also considering the wide variety of projects with which they’ve all made guest appearances), that really shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
Opening track “Serve or Survive” introduces many of the themes to figure prominently throughout this album: it starts out with some ambient/droney background parts with semi-melodic singing (clearly displaying the Neurosis influence here), but quickly gets heavier with the addition of Williams‘ signature shouted vocals, while the music veers nearly into straight-up gothic/industrial territory in some places. These different vocal styles tend to appear either singly, like the mournful ballady style (over a background of acoustic strumming and synth chords, plus Lamont‘s sax-playing) in “Run Through the Night” or (over a slow western shuffle, again with those sultry sax sounds floating overhead) in “Hallows of the Stream,” or in various combinations, such as “Party Leg and Three Fingers” (which follows some sinister-sounding talk-singing with some harsh yelling) or “Dirt Poor and Mentally Ill” (alternating chant-style vocals with more angry yelling). But in other places, the predominant style of lyrical delivery is more of a narrative or even beat-poetry style: later in “Dirt Poor” and near the end of “Drapes Hung by Jesus” the repeated rhythmical lines have a very philosophical and poetic quality to them, but especially the title track, which evokes a very story-teller kind of vibe (over a backing of quiet, introspective guitar picking), musing about different types of people — “madmen and prophets” — and the universal truths of human suffering that unite all of them — “one big happy family with a passion for bloodshed.”
The industrial vibe is a thread that runs through many of these songs as well, whether it’s faster-paced and ugly like in “Bullets and Graves” or slower and more minimal like “Party Leg” or the background of the poetry-reading of “Dirt Poor”; various sound loops, synthesized noises, and guitar effects are used to create a harsh and unforgiving environment just like the reality described in the songs’ lyrics. This is done especially well in the closing track “Drapes,” which seamlessly blends from a primarily ambient intro to a more industrial vibe, eventually flipping the switch all the way to heavy industrial metal — although once again there’s a haunting sax part, Nik Turner-esque, swirling somewhere in the midst of all the distorted dirt and grime and the railing against things like “made-for-tv disasters” …
The First and Last Days of Unwelcome was written over several nightmarish weeks of hospital stays and being confined to bed rest, shortly after Aaron Edge had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The raw materials were arranged into a series of seven tracks (about three-to-five minutes each) which were then assigned titles based on seqentially-numbered days. Not designed to represent literal twenty-four hour periods, these might be thought of more like the “days” described in the Bible’s creation story: an epoch of indeterminate length, during which some major changes or events may have taken place, roughly divided up from a much longer period of time. Scheidt and Doyle, each of whom had worked with the album’s mastermind in some capacity in the past, contribute most of the vocals and instruments to flesh out the vision created by Edge, who did add some of the parts himself as his physical condition would allow.
The album follows through a progression that seems to accurately represent the ebbs and flows of physical/mental/emotional torment that one would likely experience throughout such an ordeal; in a way, the different sections here are like a variant on the stages of grief. “Day one” opens on a bit of dialogue from — fittingly — The Twilight Zone, before Mike Scheidt‘s characteristically strong wailing vocals ring out over a deep, dirgey, doomy background. That sampled dialogue is just the first example of many sounds that could be coming from a nearby TV (the faint wavery music in the background of “Day Two,” accompanied by an ultra-slow distorted bassline, before the whole thing explodes into a fit of screaming rage, would also fit that bill), but just as likely might sound like the muffled conversation between a doctor and family members in a hospital hallway, or even the cacophony of voices within one’s own pain-medication-laden brain.
As a result, the recordings presented here may not always be wholly coherent: “Day Three” is filled with confused mess of synthetic/electronic sounds, with some sort of throbbing/pounding noise threatening to engulf everything (and in between it all, someone’s plaintive, existential/angsty cries, questioning either the disease itself or some drug-induced chimaera, “Why are you here??”); “Day Five” likewise consists chiefly of more confused noise, a tapestry of muffled faraway sounds (including a sort of demonic growling voice, just a little too low to fully understand).
Elsewhere, the “songs” (for that would be the most appropriate way to describe at least some of these tracks) do paint a clearer image — albeit one that’s generally gloomy and/or pissed-off. “Day Four” couples heavy drumming and distorted sludge with harshly snarled vocals continuing the lyrical territory explored in “Three” (i.e., “Why are you here? / Who sent you? / You are not welcome!”); “Day Six” starts with noisy, feedbacky, distorted guitar riff — very slow to develop — then the drums and bass join in a monolithic sludge/doom style, along with more of the wailing vocals that graced the first “Day” (although seeming a bit darker, perhaps even a bit more subdued, here).
Finally, the last track of this album — “Day Seven” — is another heavy, sludgy affair, with gruffly snarled vocals. It winds down considerably — the guitars sounding reverby, echoey, particularly dark, and then it ends suddenly. Unfortunately, I can’t quite say that the album goes out on a very hopeful-sounding note, but (once again) this does seem like a very accurate portrayal of how its creator would be feeling at that moment. To the best of my knowledge, this one album is designed to be Lumbar‘s only output, although Aaron has made it known that he does have more to say — but it seems he has planned other projects and other forms of expression to follow this with.
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