Swollen Members – Dagger Mouth

DAGGER

This can’t help but feel like an apology for their previous, atrocious album. For an album that’s so apologetic it also sounds like a roaring comeback that threatens to be their defining work. It’s an odd contrast that doesn’t really make sense and makes you wonder what Armed to the Teeth was all about anyway if they’re doing the complete opposite here.

Swollen Members are about classic Boom Bap only with more charisma. Instead of mumbling about New York and other such cliches, they flirt with horrorcore while never becoming as obnoxious as Necro. This versatility let them either slide completely into the genre, take it into more personal places (“Bad Dreams”) or to just expand beyond the typical boundaries of Hip-Hop. That’s why Black Magic is so good and why it received such a lukewarm reception. Before Kanye West’s new found fame, the only way to make an acclaimed album was to imitate crappy New York rappers I won’t bother to name.

So when they dropped Armed to the Teeth, it made no sense except that the people at Subnoize used it as a device to spread their misogyny. While the addition of guitars were cool, tracks like “Porn Star” were not. It’s exactly what I feared and what we got. For some reason they think that if they hate women, then every artist on Subnoize must sing about hating women. Even beyond the occasional misogyny the album lacked spirit. The only time it did, it’s because it had song titles like “Reclaim the Throne”. Clearly, they weren’t over the whole D&D thing.

From the beginning there is a suicidal fatal darkness to this album that never lets go. The opening track goes off about emotions and fear. “The Shining” talks about a spinning world that makes you feel lost. Just look at the song titles from that track on – “Devil”, “The Predator”, “Chemical Imbalance”. Swollen aim for a balance between the murder raps of Necro and the depressive introspection of Sadistik – self-harm as a sign of strength.

The result is absolutely badass and fun. It’s over-the-top, yes, but its darkness doesn’t mean a lack of fun. Swollen just trade in being warriors to being creepy dudes. “Night Vision” and “Chemical Imbalance” are the pumping heart of the album, where Mad Child swings from self-hating to bragging, often in the same line. You can hear his passion, too. He repeats the same rhymes a few times, but its his fury, his anger, how it’s directed at everyone (including himself) and no one at the same that makes the verse of “Night Vision” one of the best verses in Hip-Hop ever. Some rappers may have written more clever rhymes, but such passion is rare, especially in Boom Bap.

You can also look at this album as not just Swollen taking their style to the extreme, but also pushing the Boom Bap genre to actual darkness. Rob the Viking also shines here, knowing that the lyrics would be nothing without creepy sounds. While they don’t really go the danceable route – “Fire”, “Sound of the Drum” and “Devil” are the only times they raise the tempo and let the drums kick hard – he creates great soundscapes. Odd, unclear sounds surround these songs. A generator-like hum makes “Night Vision” way creepier. Rob knows that if the drums don’t take a central place, something else must. His atmospheric is actually atmospheric and enveloping. Calling it ‘camp’ is just silly. There was no other way of achieving this besides piling the odd noises.

Mad Child is the star here, which can sometimes be sad. All of the struggles he talked about in Armed to the Teeth are here out in the open. It might as well be an exorcism of his demons. Some songs are solo, like “Chemical Imbalance”. That leaves Prevail a bit in the dust, since his lyrics don’t have that personal nature but just cool imagery of satanic rituals, killing people, the undead and general darkness. He can never capture Mad Child’s fury who raps like a man possessed. It’s most apparent in “Night Vision” where his verse is almost useless. That said, he’s still an integral part. Without him this would become an incoherent and self-centered work. Prevail’s slightly more lighthearted approach is necessary.

The best thing about this album is how it manages to be unique, a whole piece without straying too far. Traditional Hip-Hop is an extremely minimalist genre so you get a lot of rappers saying nothing over white noise. It’s almost frightening how similar most of the canon is. Swollen Members don’t pull any tricks here, it’s just they got a more interesting concept and more passion. In the end Hip-Hop is sound art, and no matter how clever your lyrics are you need passion and to rap with conviction. Dagger Mouth is a strong contender for the best Boom Bap rap album ever. It actually takes advantage of the genre’s style and limits. It uses the minimalist beats to let the rappers go crazy, so the rappers actually go crazy. At the same time the beats remain important, providing odd sounds that change the tone of the songs – whether it’s the aggressive “Night Vision”, the moody “Chemical Imbalance” or the self-congratulating “Mr. Impossible”. I want to blame Subnoize for this album’s lack of success, but then again if they didn’t shat out Armed to the Teeth they wouldn’t feel the need to apologize and make a glorious comeback.

4 daggers out of 5

Ministry – AmeriKKKant

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Ministry is extremely stupid. Al, if you’re reading this, I think you’re insanely talented. You crafted one of the most unique sounds in Industrial and left most Metal bands in the dust. At their average, they captured the rusty, nihilistic, borderline satirical tone that Industrial music always aimed for. You don’t need their best tracks to hear metal that does sound dangerous and threatening to destroy the world along with itself.

The Bush trilogy is stupid, but it was powerful. The lack of insight into politics or the stupidity didn’t stop tracks like “Gangreen” to have power in how much bile and hatred they express. “Worm”, a fantastic display of depression could only come from a political record that’s full of fear and paranoia. The last album in that trilogy was surprisingly good. If the Bush triloy lacked any insight, it was powerful in capturing the emotions of living in such constant fear and hatred of the government.

Oh, but how stupid is Ministry! They can’t write songs. They create loops which beat you over the head for five minutes. That’s why Ministry were always a Dance act more than a Metal act. Verses and choruses are alien creatures to their music. It’s all about the loop that can keep people dancing, but often that loop didn’t change. So Ministry’s songs tend to exhaust themselves after 2 minutes. Exhaustion is another central theme of Ministry’s later works, so overall perhaps it fits.

Seriously, though, how stupid can you get? How stupid can you get with such a fantastic talent and sound design? AmeriKKKant is a moronic album. I mean, look at the title. It still thinks it’s clever to spell ‘AmeriKKKa’. Al is definitely late to identity politics, but hey it might sell records! The songs still consist of endless loops of the same thing. This time, it works a little better – thanks to turning to sludge – only there are so many terrible ideas in between it’s easy to forget that pretty awesome guitar solo that closes the album.

Why oh why did we need “I Know Words”, which is Trump’s vocals scratched and chopped to some fiddling in the background? It sounds like a Nurse With Wound B-side, or at best a stolen section from one of his songs. As an intro, it’s too long. As a 3-minute experimental piece, it goes nowhere and has no reason to take up so much space. Later on we get another interlude with the wasted title of “TV 5/4Chan”, which juxtaposes right-wing vocals with some noise. What does it mean? I don’t know. Right-wingers are pretty bad and are on 4chan. Ministry writing a song about the idiots of 4chan would’ve been actually nice. Maybe someone should take an axe to that meme culture, but sadly Ministry missed their change.

As for songs, the first singles are the worst. “Antifa” has been beaten to the ground and it will never get old. The song chugs along with indifferent riffs. The chorus is Al roaring “We’re not snowflakes, we are the antifa” without any hint of passion or anger or fury or anything. Even in terms of pure sound the song is bad with how dry and hollow the production sounds. “Wargasm” isn’t as stupid and it has a chorus – rare in Ministry’s catalogue. Sadly the song also chugs along with little passion or fury. Al sounds tired. At least at their dumbest, Ministry was furious. “Wargasm” lacks all that. Shouldn’t he be excited to make something other than Thrash metal?

What makes all this more frustrating is that there are hints of a bright future for this band. Although the highlights don’t have Ministry’s fury in the Bush era, “Twilight Zone”, “Game Over” and the title-track are all borderline excellent. Moving to more sludgy metal, sampling like hell and DJ scratches all help to create a suffocating sense of apocalypse, paranoia and general depression from the end of the world. It separates itself from the Bush trilogy by having zero hope. If the Bush trilogy had a warlike spirit, a character to direct anger at this has none.

“Twilight Zone” would’ve been a closing track in past Ministry albums. Now it’s the first actual song. It doesn’t even have a proper riff, but a slow, crumbling sound design that plays like the apocalypse. Sure, Trump is sampled and make fun of, but it’s no longe the direct hatred of past albums. Everything is bad and there is no light. It is a direct sequel in spirit to “Worm” and “End of Days”, combining the depression and the apocalypse. Time will tell how strong it will stand, but it just might enter into Ministry’s greatest hits. “Game Over” and the title-track aren’t too different, but they do the job right and added some much-needed melody.

These are only 3 tracks out of 9. Then again, 2 of the 9 tracks are just interludes. So we’re left with an odd feeling of a very short album that runs for too long that has few ideas and not enough time to work on them. “Victims of a Clown” is a 4-minute catchy rocker that’s stretched for no reason for 8 minutes. The most telling track is “We’re Tired of It”, a return to Thrash that really does sound tired with a horrible, toothless production job. The walls of sound in “Rio Grande Bloode” were enough. This one has none.

People continue to beat Ministry for their stupidity and perhaps we should continue. Stupid ideas flood this album, from stretching “Victims of a Clown” to the interludes, to the first singles and the overall production job. Yet the solo at the end of the title-track and “Twilight Zone” prove Al still has talent in him and it’s a talent no one can capture. Most Industrial Metal bands either replicated KMFDM or Marilyn Manson and Ministry could continue with all the changing members because Al does have a unique vision. I only want him to finally be able to realize it without all the stupidity clogging up their albums. At least this gave me 3 tracks to add to the Industrial playlist.

2 k’s out of 5 k’s

Asking Alexandria – The Black

theblack.jpeg
Rock musicians are terrible people, aren’t they?

The Black is an appropriate title. A black cloud hung over this album from the start. The band had problems with Worsnop. Make Me Famous (An underrated and better band) had problem with Denis. One asshole gets kicked out, another one takes his place. How long will this version of Alexandria will last?

The band wasn’t satisfied with their previous album. Worsnop got into drugs and other rock star troubles. Denis, his replacement, was a complete asshole to his previous band. The record sounds like it. Despite the noise and the screaming and the heaviness, something about it feels off. It’s not that the band doesn’t want to play this kind of music. The darkness in it prevents it from working.

Metalcore, especially the contemporary variant isn’t about emotions. It’s about slamming. When Worsnop dissed a girl for having sex (Why do musicians diss girls for having sex? Aren’t groupies the reason you start a band in the first place?) in “Not the American Average” it sounded like the most logical thing to do with metalcore. All these silly bands spitting serious poetry over breakdowns and here comes a band that rocks hard. an sings about partying hard. Breakdowns don’t sound deep and neither are the anthemic chorus.

This is the glory of Trancecore. It injected fun to a genre that was built for it. The band didn’t become Killswitch Engage, but they lost their sense of fun. It’s apparent already from the opening track. There’s distress in the repetition of the title “Let It Sleep”. The song is some diss track towards an ex-wife, and there’s bittenress all over it. The song has no structure or direction.¬†The band moves from section to section, just trying to pound away their frustration.

The same thing applies to the title-track, which is pretty brilliant. It kicks off with an intense, downtuned riffs and screaming the crowd can’t join in. The lyrics have the same distress the opener has, with no sense of humor or fun. They need to cut Worsnop off, they want him to speak to them. It all climaxes in hushed singing and piano. Like the opener, there’s a lack of the stability to the track. Metalcore’s poor song structures now sound good – the band sounds too worried, too angry to care about coherency.

Carrying an album based on emotionally-rich Metalcore is hard. Killswitch Engage have been failing at it miserably for a while. Alexandria aren’t talented enough for this sound. “Let It Sleep” is a one-off. Multiple its messiness and all you’re left with is noise. No other track is as weird as the title-track. Alexandria abandoned the Electronic elements for some reason.

The band falls into the trap that many weird rock bands fall to later. Just like Disturbed and, to a lesser extent, Slipknot, Alexandria normalizes their sound. There’s nothing unique here. There are a few tracks that rely more on melody, but the biggest departure is a piano ballad. Doesn’t every band with loud guitars have a piano ballad?

Even Denis lost all of his charisma. He fronted Make Me Famous. They were one of the best Trancecore bands. Back then, Denis came off as a cocky, sure frontman who always broke up the Metalcore noise with Electronic interludes or beautiful melodies. Even if the band didn’t mix every genre in the world, they sure sounded like it. On The Black, Denis sounds like he lives in a world where the only music in existence is Metalcore.

There’s talent in the band. “Circled By the Wolves” comes at the end to bring the same intensity of the opener. It’s a roaring, messy song with no structure that just slams. In context, it sounds like another burst of noise. You can’t bludgeon the listener with the same sound. The heaviest bands were always more than loud and always had more than one genre. Slipknot’s debut is one of the most intense records ever, and they took cues from Industrial and Hip-Hop. Heavy music is like shock value – use the same trick too many times and the effect loses it.

The band still has potential. Every song sounds worse in context but the album is a stand-out in the genre. It has more emotional weight than anyone else, and that makes “Let It Sleep”, “The Black” and “Here I Am” worth a few spins. I doubt they’ll re-capture this though. Such emotional distress is lightning in a bottle. If they couldn’t milk the issues with Worsnop while it’s fresh, the opportunity¬†is missed. Hopefully their next album will be more fun.

2.5 blacks out of 5