Well, it's been almost a year, but technically Birkir and I managed to squeeze out a second episode of the Mystery Grab Bag for 2019, so that's progress! This one came together in just under two months, too, which is also promising. Still my favorite manner in which to yak about music on the internet! Hope you can find some tunes to enjoy!
Birkir: The production value on this is like '90s Rush and Warrior Soul. Such a strange concoction: bluesy rock, double-kick drum part that lasts most of the song, Pearl Jam-esque chorus... This singer has a very distinct voice and cadence. This type of singing seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. Breakdown reminiscent of King's X. Wow, now things are getting really interesting. This band has balls, I tell ya. I'm really at a loss here, and it is not because I cannot relate with this music, but it is such an unusual choice. Such an interesting mix of influences, and for the most part it works really well. This has got to be a '90s band. Early-'00s at the latest.
The Big F, "Wicked Thing," from Is (Chrysalis, 1993)
Andrew: This incredibly random selection is The Big F. I discovered this band in recent years thanks to this very song appearing on an old Foundations Forum three-CD compilation that I picked up. I cannot pretend that this is a truly amazing song by an Earth-shattering band, but let me tell you, that opening riff is complete and total badassery and had me absolutely losing my mind right off the bat. You know the one: that fucked up slide-pull-jangle riff played in a style that's weirdly crisp and tight for being so loose and kinda funky at the same time. This tune is just hard rockin' alternative super-'90s wackiness. It's pretty damn cool, too. If that bursting opening riff doesn't catch your ear just a little bit, you're fuckin' nuts. I could listen to that sucker on a loop for hours. It's a borderline dance riff or something! Just wild! Welcome to my own personal island of obsessive insanity! You can find this album on YouTube or Spotify.
Fun facts: I am just now learning that some of these dudes played in Berlin!? Yes! Fucking Top Gun "Take My Breath Away" Berlin!? And another one did session work on an '80s tune by The Monkees!? What the fuck!?
Birkir: Fuck. The singer hasn't kicked in, but I'm already super familiar with this. East coast hardcore dudes doing the "post-" thing. Where did this bass tone go, and will anyone have the guts to bring it back? That is the big question. This singer rules. Damn it. Tons of energy from everyone involved. I'm racking my brain here over all the clues, but coming up empty. Contagiously energetic. This song just rolls over you.
Onespot Fringehead, "Muffle," from Onespot Fringehead (Merkin, 1994)
Andrew: I think this one's gonna surprise people, because I just can't imagine many readers will have heard of this band. This is Onespot Fringehead, from Maryland. I've lived a mere few hours from Maryland my entire life, and I had never heard of them either. I spotted this CD for a few bucks in a used bin near Virginia Beach earlier this year and bought it on a whim because I recognized the record label from a few other obscurities in my collection. I figured it would be "okay," you know? Not great, not bad, but worth checking out for a cheap price. So, I was floored when I was greeted by this masterfully hard-hitting brand of propulsive post-hardcore somewhat reminiscent of Jawbox. It's a little heavier than Jawbox—almost like Jawbox with a dash of early Helmet, maybe? Whatever the case, I'm of the mind that if you dig Jawbox, you need to hear this fuckin' band and you need to hear them quickly! How good is this, right? I totally live for these experiences—blindly buying an unknown bargain disc and having it kick my ass across the room. You will also be shocked to learn that this album is actually on Spotify (and YouTube), though the band is labeled simply "Onespot" on there, if you're seeking it out. Apparently this is because—wait for it—they're back together (with a revised lineup)!? And just released a new EP a few months ago!?
Birkir: Oh, man, that guitar tone is crushing! Fantastic time signature. Jesus, these guys can play. Oh, the beginning was a subdued version of this huge, brain-glue of a chorus. Loving this. The transition into the chorus is very, very impressive. I love when bands do this. So seamless, but very difficult to pull off and make work. Yeah, I'm going to be all over this drummer... I wrote "drummer" instead of "band," because I'm a drummer and I'm in love with this drummer. But, I digress. I'm going to be all over this band after the reveal. That ending, fuck me! I'm so humbled by the end that I got a bit teary-eyed. What the hell is going on?
Pulse Ultra, "Never the Culprit," from Headspace (Atlantic, 2002)
Andrew: I cannot tell you how excited I am that you enjoyed this, and that you pointed out the fact that there's actually some talented musicianship happening here! Because this, my friend, is major label Canadian nu-metal from the early-2000s, and I love every fuckin' minute of it! I've tried to get people to hear me out on this, but I usually fail miserably. Listening blindly with no preconceived notions, however, you have rightfully accepted this as the damn solid tune that it is. This entire album is phenomenal. It has a few dull moments, sure, but I pull this disc off the shelf far more often than anyone would expect—myself included. Ridiculously catchy songs, but, man—as you've remarked—there's some sneakily technical and challenging shit happening under the surface here. Sick drumming with great little fills 'n' flare, plenty of cymbal bashing; the bassist is a beast; tricky time signatures—even during that mega chorus!? I'd probably cite this as the #1 most underrated nu-metal album of all time. So good. Every time this song comes on my iPod, I usually end up listening to it three or four times in a row. Love it. Also on YouTube or Spotify.
Birkir: This is no joke. We got serious, dark, and cold very quickly. The bag went off a cliff here, and I'm not saying that disparagingly. We are not rocking out anymore, as we get a harrowing glimpse into something very different and tortured—like someone's nightmare, someone's addiction, someone's trauma. This song loops and adds sounds/noise to it in a very sneaky manner, yet leaving the stage for the voice, the poem, the expression. Tell you what, in 1996 I was in Dresden, Germany to see one of Swans' final shows. This was to be their final tour ever. Michael Gira was in command, grumpy and angry at everything and anyone, but it was Jarboe that caught me, that drilled into my imagination. Keep in mind, I had not even seen a bootlegged video of the band playing live prior to this, and I was 18 years old. A boy from a small fishing village in east-Iceland. This woman was a shock to my senses. She scared the living daylights out of me. I couldn't keep my eyes off her. Clearly she was in some distress. Clearly she had lived a life so foreign from mine. I had no idea.
After the show, she was selling her own music—her own merch, so to speak. It consisted of unique "recorded-over" cassettes of her reading, howling, screaming, whispering her own poems and free thoughts of sorts. This was scored to acoustic guitars (some out of tune), piano, and mangled keyboards. It sounded like she recorded it in empty rooms, and I pictured them being in abandoned or squatted crack dens. Also, these cassettes came in used drug bags along with some of her jewelry. Crazy.
But, I digress yet again. This song reminds me of that tape and some of Jarboe's other work, and for that I am grateful. I'm intrigued and totally captivated by the baring loneliness this track oozes. Maybe this is the artist everyone is talking about now who's name escapes me. My brain is so flooded in parenthood that I never seem to be able to latch onto breakthrough artists anymore. The artist in question is a woman and she plays fringe festivals and showcases for more trained listeners, shall we say. Serious and super personal music and delivery. Young woman. Fuck me. What a useless train of thought I'm on here. Song five can't come soon enough!
Blackmouth, "Inner Alien," from Blackmouth (Crowd Control Activities, 2000)
Andrew: You're damn close to the bull's-eye! That is Jarboe, of course, from the Blackmouth project that she did with John Bergin and Brett Smith from Tertium Non Data (amongst others). To be honest with you, I've not been the biggest Jarboe fan over the years, but I got a review copy of this album almost 20 years ago and was instantly impressed. This is my favorite song from it, for sure. So stunning. The way the lyrics transition from "Heaven is inside my belly, I swallowed it." to "Hell is inside my body, I ate it." I mean... damn. Heavy. I wish this project had done more, but I suppose it may have been approached as a bit of a one-off, as all three members are no strangers to keeping busy. This must be an underrated album as well, 'cause it doesn't appear to be digitally distributed—at least not in the U.S. There are barely any tracks on YouTube or anything. Strange.
Your wonderful story about those "'recorded-over' cassettes" makes me realize that I really do need to do a deeper dive into some of Jarboe's other output. I wonder if there's any chance in hell that I could find one of those cassettes for sale at a reasonable price? My guess would be an emphatic "Nope!," but...
Birkir: Okay. Back to rocking here. I hear guitars... Wow! Parallax? No? Please, say it is them. I never had a Parallax release, only a mere mp3 downloaded around the turn of the century, if I'm not mistaken. I was so about "this kind" of music back in the day, ushered in mainly by—let's be honest here—Shai Hulud. As such, this is so good. Like a harsher Poison the Well meets early-Misery Signals. I loooooove the vocals, just like I love the Parallax and Harvest vocals. There's something about the tone of these guys that makes me so amped. Just the right amount of intensity between everyone here, and the production doesn't polish the delivery. This is probably the 268th time I've written that something metalcore sounds like metalcore, but this is that! I love this. It splinters off a bit with a few too many parts fucking with the flow, but I'm truly looking forward to learn who this is so I can listen to a whole release in one sitting. Didn't I read about Parallax on your site? The singer drowned in an underwater cave-diving accident, I think.
Parallax, "Momentum," from Mediums & Messages (Counterintelligence, 2006)
Andrew: Wow, you nailed it! I'm impressed! You picked two songs from releases that I own yet still couldn't identify—not even freakin' Metal Church—and here you are spot-on with Parallax on a whim! This is the opening track from their lone full-length masterpiece, Mediums & Messages. And you are correct, their vocalist, Blake Donner, did tragically pass away—in fact, even before this album was released. It's so perfect that you cited both Shai Hulud and Misery Signals, as I've also mentioned both of those bands when gushing about Parallax in the past. But, that's really just to set some sort of benchmark for precisely how good this is. Parallax really is something different—their own unique entity. Such a special band/album. Absolutely an unsung classic, and also one of the metalcore albums that I've recommended the most over the years. I thought for sure they had come up in a prior installment of the bag, but alas, I was mistaken.
This is another band displaying really mind-blowing musicianship, too. Listen to it on the surface and it might not come across, but if you actually listen closely and try to follow this stuff and imagine attempting to play these songs, you realize how insanely intricate and hard to pin down all the riffs and transitions are. And yet, it's one of the only chaotic and abrasive-leaning metalcore albums that is actually able to strike enough emotion to occasionally bring tears to my eyes. Greg Bennick from Trial wrote and performed the lyrics to one of the songs, "Surgery Without Sutures," and there are portions of those lyrics that are... my life, essentially—for better or worse.
Anyway, Mediums & Messages is an amazing piece of art that more people need to be exposed to. I'm always thrilled to be able to introduce new listeners to this material. Thankfully, it's on Bandcamp as a free download. Please: explore it...
Andrew: Okay, meaty metalcore with strong production—nice and clear, good bass presence, etc. There's a European vibe to the music in terms of that H8000-ish, not-quite-death-metal attack and some of that dirty/aggressive side of the melodic Swedish influence that was so huge within this scene back toward the start of the 2000s. I'm thinking this is a North American band, though. This could very well be an artist that I've checked out in the past, but I listen to so much music that I honestly have no idea. When it comes to newer bands, unless it's something that really blows me out of the water, I'm pretty bad at remembering who's who. Scathing shit, though, this is well done. This song in particular doesn't make me lose my mind, but it's definitely well-written and executed. A touch chaotic in a sense, but not too jarring/patched-together in arrangement. That dissonant passage with the spoken vocals is killer!
Dying Wish, "Veil," from Dying Wish/Serration Split (Blasphemour, 2018)
Birkir: I'm glad you quickly pointed out the H8000 quality, as that is one of the things I wanted you to latch onto, but this band goes way beyond that well of inspiration. This is Portland's Dying Wish, a young band that is seemingly focused on making metalcore metalcore again, thus perfect for cynics such as you and I. What I appreciate so, so much about them is how they avoid today's genre standards of pretty much building everything around the upcoming breakdown. Sure, they have those, but all the songwriting that happens before and after is where this band shines. All their songs, regardless of the tempos featured, are filled to the brim with tangible intensity and aggression that is hard to find in their counterparts these days—most of which just phone in their "sickness," so to speak.
I know I'm not being super clear on this, but Dying Wish has that something that others don't. I had the same feeling when Full of Hell came into their own. A vastly different band than Dying Wish, but it was the same. I was looking for intense hardcore and death metal-infused grind, and tons of bands did it but failed at it. Then Full of Hell just perfected "the mix" and proceeded to slay everything and everyone in their path, and haven't let up ever since.
There's a feel and quality here that I had given up on finding. So, although this band checks some nostalgic boxes for me, they are their own thing, because they are better players than many of the bands a younger me was all about, and they have more varied influences. They are just more metal, fuck it. They do it better. I mean, when you have songs that evoke Acme, All Out War, Die My Will, old Eighteen Visions, Walls of Jericho, and affirmations of H8000, I will be listening. And I'm with you in this not coming off like a patchwork of parts. That's one of the qualities I'm trying to talk about here, and it will show itself if you listen to their releases throughout. They have a new song on Bandcamp called "Enemies in Red," and it is an absolute monster.
Andrew: Oh, god, HM-2 right off the bat, so this could be anyone, because sooo many bands have been aping that guitar tone over the past five years or so. This packs a nice punch, though. As with track #1, the bass presence is very cool and helps thicken up the sound. The vocals are also pretty burly, but mixed way back against the instrumentation. There's an interesting sense of groove goin' on here, which leads me to believe that this is probably a band that has at least some sort of connection to the hardcore scene (as opposed to being a full-on metal unit). Is there any chance this could be Harm's Way? Hmmm, I don't know... probably not, but there are some similarities.
Left Behind, "Paranoid," from Blessed by the Burn (Unbeaten/Pure Noise, 2017)
Birkir: This is—if there's any justice in the world—the soon-to-be-mighty Left Behind. And what a band, my man. What a fucking planet-colliding band this is. Some of these guys are probably young enough to be my sons, and I have a nagging feeling they are misplaced and hampered by the "hardcore scene," but here's to us maybe connecting them with new ears. I play this song for people in my real life and they get floored. People from all walks of metal and crushing hardcore. Because there's something about this band that their very-able and often awesome counterparts (Year of the Knife, Knocked Loose, Jesus Piece, and Une Misère, to name but a few... let's add Code Orange and Harm's Way in there) don't have. And that is heft—the feeling of wisdom and age. It's like this band just magically became old and wise beyond their years, and no song reflects that better than "Paranoid." I've listened to this track so many times and air-performed it alone that it is downright embarrassing—or awesome, whichever you'd prefer. And I'm not disparaging the bands I rounded up back there. I love some of them, but with this track especially, Left Behind has their own special lane with no one else riding in either direction.
I mean, come the fuck on, mate, the patience in the songwriting and the economic nature of it. They are on fire and totally know what to do and how much is too much and how little is perfect—especially in this song, rendering it a dark and formidable ride that is not easily forgotten. It's almost cinematic due to how the song develops according to the lyrics. I'll say it: this is a stroke of genius!
Example: the break where the drums continue by themselves. Yeah, it's been done before, but here it's markedly longer than usual and the drummer just sits in his pocket—no frills—and this groove hints that something gnarly is about to come. And then it kinda doesn't, but we are met with a singer that has a roar only matched by L.G. Petrov in his prime and he barks, "Security won't let me out of the room. I black out and don't know what I do. So I beat down the walls to break through." And there's another stop. Yet the menace you've been waiting for still hasn't arrived, but this is a short song. How can it be? This sort of songwriting cleverness evokes Trap Them at their Seizures in Barren Praise very best. And then, only then, this hulking mountain of a riff kicks in, thunderous bass and mammoth drumming, and L.G. Petrov's turbo-reflection belts out the next part of the story: "They put me into the back of the car. 'It'll be a short ride, the jail isn't far.' As we get closer the heat greets me. The door handle feels like a thousand degrees." I can see and feel this song, Andrew. At this point, I'm headbanging so fucking deep and hard that I have to catch my bearings and tell myself that my two little kids will be home soon, and I have to make our home proper and prepared for the circle pit of devastation they bring. And, so it is, I'm back to real life, but I thank Left Behind for taking me on these rides. Cheers to these young motherfuckers, doing for me what I cannot. Hail!
Andrew: Whoa, little bit of a NWOBHM vibe goin' on with this intro, but I'm betting that this is a newer band that has some quality influences from way back when. Wait, no, fuck, I think I'm wrong... I feel like you listen to a lot of contemporary bands that are big into the sounds of yore, but these vocals are way too unique for this to be a contemporary band. I'm sorry to say, but most newer bands just don't have this kind of character to the vocals at all. These vocals are fuckin' cool. If they were mixed a touch louder, we'd be hearing more of that raspy texture that peaks through at times. I should know this, shouldn't I? But I suck, I have no clue. Good stuff, though. The mix is wacky, however. The drum sounds are a little iffy and the snare is too loud, it needs more guitars and vocals punching forth.
Metal Church, "Ton of Bricks," from The Dark (Elektra, 1986)
Birkir: Metal Church, buddy! The big band that couldn't break through. The little band that could... should? Fuck. Why on Earth didn't they get bigger? They had it all, and maybe they had too much. They straddled that line between classic metal (especially Accept), power metal, and speed metal with a nod to thrash, but never really went there. Maybe that would have pushed them over the edge, thrash metal. Did you know that they at some point shared members with Manowar? I read that somewhere, I think, and in the interest of this bag, I'm not going to fact-check anything. I digress. This is "Ton of Bricks," and it rips. Such an awesome opener to the very good The Dark album. I love how on-the-nose the song title is, because this song explodes out of the gate just like an album opener should on a proper metal release. In my ears now and to a 10- or 12-year-old me, this was perfect. Like a march to war. Like driving a car through a mass of police cars. At least that is how I envisioned it. I had no idea what the lyrics meant, really. What the kid-me gleaned from them, though, was trouble-making and fights. I read the lyric sheet and I was perfectly happy with that summation. Now I'm curious to know what a 41-year-old me thinks. Let me AltaVista the lyrics here... give me a second. Oh, yes! "I'm the grinding stone. Ripping flesh, drawing blood. I'd love to eat your bones." Fucking right, he will! I don't need to read any further. This is perfect. To our readers: just crank this song up and tell people to fuck off!
I was sure you'd like this. I was not dropping this to play tricks or see if you knew who the band was. I just had a feeling you'd appreciate it. You mention the mix being wacky, and you are not wrong. This is what happened to a lot of releases that came out on major labels. You know, you would get a rugged metal band, throw some money at them and let them know a proper rock producer would handle the sound. Now, big-sounding rock production values rarely mix well with raging, rabble-rousing scum-metal. That's my explanation.
But, yes, I'm a big purveyor of this band, and they are endlessly fascinating to me. They had such an appeal and a crazy work ethic, but never got back what they deserved. I mean, this isn't a silly band or kitsch by any stretch of the imagination—at least not in metal terms, not back when they roamed the deserts of California. I guess luck was not on their side. But, holy fuck, all those releases. Like Overkill, these guys are unstoppable, and behind them is a treasure of reinforced metal run through all kinds of varied song ideas while always kicking ass. Metal Church has a special place in my heart.
Andrew: You'll stump me again with this one, but I'm interested. Nice, emotional vibe to the opening. The recording's too thin so far, but I like it. Raw, maybe slightly crude, but it just works. This is going to be one of those Superchunk-y bands that I've heard or heard of but never explored much, isn't it? You have a pretty good track record of piquing my interest with this indie rock kinda thing. I'm not flipping out over this one, but there's enough of an atmosphere to it that I'd like to do some digging on this band. Some of the vocals are a little, like... not hippie-ish, but... I guess "folksy" in a way that makes me roll my eyes a little bit, but I think I can hang because there are lots of unexpected twists herein for a three-minute tune. I haven't the faintest idea who this is, but I'll look them up and do more research to see what the story is, absolutely.
Laura Secord, "Crop Circles," from Ending Friendships (Why Not? Plötuútgáfa!, 2019)
Birkir: Here's a band I have time for. Headed by Alison McNeal of Kimono fame (one of my favorite Icelandic bands of all time), Laura Secord builds on some of the ideas and feelings she conjured with her old band, but runs it through three other people—the drummer phenom from World Narcosis, Erik of Den, and Julius of BSÍ and Stormy Daniels—that come from a totally different angle than her old bandmates. And the results are great. Great, I tell ya! This album is just out and I really wanted to feature it because I believe they are onto something special here that is hard to pin down. It was difficult to pick a song to represent the band, if you will. "Aeroplanes" was a strong contender as well. It is kinda difficult to wax poetic on this band because they are so recent and there's very little I can add. I believe Alison wants Laura Secord to be a bit lighter and more playful affair than the heavy Kimono, and they succeed in that. But even still, there's dread and darkness that comes through her songwriting, often confusing yet evoking lyrics, and her haunting voice. This song is so intriguing to me. It starts out like Kimono, but then there's a break and it becomes like something else entirely, like it is racing off into the distance and saying goodbye to the past. It's got twists that are a bit wild—a bit too wild for Kimono—skittish even, but very exuberant. Maybe that's the word I'm looking for, and it describes the album quite well. Pure indie rock rawness marinated in left-field and adventurous thinking. I love it. Just like I love I'm Being Good and Truman's Water, but some songs on this album are so damn catchy. Just listen to "All Night Long" and it's like another band. Incredible. In fact, I'm pretty sure you are going to fall in love with that song. It's like Ghost meets later day Small Brown Bike meets Unwound, god damnit! Fuck! Check this album out.
Andrew: This one might be the winner of the batch. Definitely similar to the previous track, but a little more cohesive and "in the zone" for me. Yeah, I like this. Good songwriting, some angular shifts, and a rough-but-warm recording that totally works for what they're doing. This is my favorite for this episode. Somewhere between Metroschifter and Criteria. Whatever it was about the prior track that sort of rubbed me the wrong way, this tune comes across as more genuine and heartfelt to me. Good work, my friend, this is a band that I'll probably be feverishly adding to my ever-expanding Discogs wantlist within hours of the reveal!
Come, "Recidivist," from Gently Down the Stream (Matador/Domino, 1998)
Birkir: I saved my favorite song for last and I just knew—deep inside my anxious, second-guessing soul—that you would dig it. Had you not, I would probably have had to reconsider our friendship. And look at you, you are into it, good man! Gently Down the Stream is a wonderful album full of memorable moments that have easily stood the test of time. But to my dramatic, wistful, and pensive self, this song has stuck with me since the album's release, and it is the standout. My brother bought this album and kept playing it in his room and I was instantly taken by it. It may be a stretch, but when I listen to Laura Secord and Come back-to-back it dawns on me that both bands' lyrics conjure similar images in my mind and currents in my body. I don't exactly "get them," but they take me places and evoke a facsimile of something that is unique in my brain. It's crazy. I love that. I could never write lyrics like that. Do they mean anything? Does it matter? Even still, the lyrics meant something to me. They grabbed me and placed me within the song. This married by the mournful atmosphere of the song, those fucking melodies and chords, it does something to me. Very powerful and incredibly gripping. Flawless brilliance, this is.
Check out more great music through our previous installments:
- Mystery Grab Bag: Episode 1
- Mystery Grab Bag: Episode 2
- Mystery Grab Bag: Episode 3
- Mystery Grab Bag: Episode 4
- Mystery Grab Bag: Episode 5
- Mystery Grab Bag: Episode 6
- Mystery Grab Bag: Episode 7
- Mystery Grab Bag: Episode 8
- Mystery Grab Bag: Episode 9
- Mystery Grab Bag: Episode 10
- Mystery Grab Bag: Episode 11