Like anybody who runs a micro-indie at the forefront of a burgeoning subgenre, Aaron Turner has a great sense of timing and excellent taste. As honcho of Boston’s Hydra Head (motto: “Don’t like it? Don’t buy it!”), the New Mexico transplant began highlighting the convergence between nonidiotic hardcore and extreme metal way back in the mid-’90s—long before anyone thought to give it a name (or names).
Though the 24-year-old Turner has admitted that Hydra Head’s early releases “aren’t very good,” picking a worthwhile metalcore or noisecore (or whatever you want to call it) disc from the label’s recent catalogue is kinda like spotting tight T-shirts at a Strokes show. Lately, the guy’s definition of heavy music has stretched to include everything from the antic grind of Discordance Axis to the crazed mathematics of Botch to the noise terrorism of Merzbow. And as his horizons have broadened, his quality control has improved.
Oh yeah, Turner’s got a band, too. It’s called Isis. And like Hydra Head’s first several records, its early efforts aren’t all that great. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the 5-year-old quintet just wasn’t all that original when it first hit the Record button. Isis’ first full-length, 2000’s Celestial, definitely shared the Hydra Head roster’s love of drop-tuned metallic chug. But Turner’s art didn’t completely follow his wallet: Whereas his label’s heaviest hitters were quick-change maestros with Guitar Center chops, Turner & Co. were content with Zeppelin-esque tempos and megalithic chords slowly swelling into feedback. Like its tribal-metal role model Neurosis, Isis painted its dark, droning songs with simple, heavy strokes, creating something much closer to classed-up hard rock than revelatory whatevercore.
Celestial’s follow-up, the new Oceanic, wisely moves Isis away from Neurosis Jr. territory, adding nice-guy elements such as female vocals, spacey keyboards, and electronic beats to the usual hard-rock formula. Sure, all the genre signifiers remain, but among the gargling-glass vocals, distorted-to-hell guitars, and full-force drumming, there lurks a decidedly nonbrutal melodicism. Oceanic’s lead-off cut, “The Beginning and the End,” briefly nods to the thick, forceful tunes of the Isis of old, with Turner screaming, “On the edge/With his eyes rolled back/The waves were/Calling him” as his bandmates kick up an appropriately sludgy racket behind him. But the track quickly gives way to pensive, indie-rocker chording and never recovers its early momentum: All that bottom-heavy evil gets pissed away in a sea of shoegazer strumming.
And things get damn near mainstream whenever Turner passes the mike to sweet-voiced guest Maria Christopher, especially on the 11-minute “Weight,” which, despite its title, is hefty only in comparison with, say, the Vines. Building up slowly from an initial foundation of smeary keyboards and mid-tempo drums, the song reliably piles on guitars until Christopher is cooing over sheets of distortion so smooth they’re nearly ambient. Similarly, “Carry” floats along propelled by minimalist, reverb-drenched guitar work, finally delivering some bombast almost as an afterthought. And the instrumental “Maritime” does away with metal altogether, beginning with watery electronics and cleanly picked strings before culminating in a restrained Middle Eastern melody.
Of course, there are also more than a few tracks that sound like Celestial leftovers: “False Light” and “From Sinking” both take stabs at Neurosis’ heavier-than-God speaker abuse and rhythmic intensity. But neither of these power-chord ass-whuppings is ever that far away from some mellow dynamic shift. Even when the guitars finally unwind an honest-to-goodness riff, on the disc-closing “Hym,” it’s a move notable mainly for its length: The band revels in the volume for a few minutes before dropping back into soft rock halfway through.
But let’s give credit where credit is due: Isis has definitely expanded its aesthetic this time around—sometimes Oceanic even sounds like about three records rolled into one. But originality isn’t always about diversity. And diversity isn’t always a good time. What’s often so satisfying about the bands Turner loves to release records by is their single-mindedness: Most Hydra Head acts do one thing and do it well. Isis, by contrast, still seems to be searching for its own sound. Though Oceanic is impressive for all its new juxtapositions, Turner has yet to create anything that’s as much fun as the music his label puts out.
Black Dice are another Northeastern heavy-rock outfit that equates growing up with turning down (some). Hailing from Providence, R.I., and now based in Brooklyn, the quartet introduced itself in the late ’90s with a series of screechy, grot-fidelity EPs that made forefathers Void and Black Flag sound like the friggin’ Beatles. Those brief bursts were sloppy, arty, funny, and great: punk trying to be as transgressive as possible, full of uncomfortable frequencies and listener intimidation. Unfortunately, yet predictably, Black Dice’s harder-faster-louder trajectory culminated in 2001’s formless Cold Hands, which neither rocked nor upped any kind of noise-qua-noise ante.
That the disc was a dead end is something that even the band must have realized, because its follow-up is a near-total reinvention. Clocking in at nearly an hour, the five tracks of Beaches & Canyons make barely any reference to the Black Dice sound of yore. Instead of revving up with guitarist Bjorn Copeland’s godawful feedback—as on every other Black Dice release—the band eases into the new album’s first track, “Seabird,” with burping electronics. Obviously taking a cue from Japan’s Boredoms, who recently forsook stop-start spazz rock for the expansive sounds of ’70s Germany, Black Dice have gone psychedelic. But this ain’t any kind of trotting-out-the-solos acid-rock trip: Beaches & Canyons has a lot more in common with the cryptic, stream-of-consciousness gush of Faust and Amon Duul II than with the music made by groovier contemporaries such as Neu! and Can.
Most of this druggy ritual is characterized by piles of effects and monosyllabic vocals pulsating over throbbing drums. Copeland & Co. swear they wrote the album before entering the studio, but Beaches & Canyons often sounds like the result of some very lucky improv. Like a good free-jazz set, the disc slowly builds in intensity, pulling back just before things get too vulgar.
Whenever the band starts approaching meltdown, it drops into some surprisingly serene passages. The beginning of “Things’ll Never Be the Same,” for example, unleashes waves of static and heavenly voices. The middle of “The Dream Is Going Down” sets childish melodies against soothing, enginelike hum. And “Endless Happiness” commences with another visit to the waves, bringing along flute and chimes to mix with the gentle electronic undulations. But don’t go thinking that Black Dice have turned hippie-soft on us: All this New Age-y jive is carefully calculated to keep Beaches & Canyons’ pace steady until the big payoff, which is anything but soft-focused.
Once the disc hits “Big Drop,” it’s clear that the synthy stuff was prelude to a holocaust. The track is the finest, most earth-scorching 16 minutes of Black Dice’s career. Yet even in the midst of the corrosive noise, the band sustains the neo-psych tone. Yelps turn into mantras, drums increase in intensity, and stringed instruments emerge from the droning machine sounds. There’s nothing genre-specific about it, though: “Big Drop” is just one huge energy surge. It might as well have been made by Albert Ayler or John Coltrane.
The track would hardly be so effective on its own, however: The arc of Beaches & Canyons makes the most sense taken as a whole. And coming from a band that used to blow its wad within a couple of beats, that’s a giant step indeed. CP