Birkir from Halifax Collect and I cooked up the Mystery Grab Bag towards the end of 2013, and—as far as I'm concerned—without "the bag," No Echo wouldn't exist. This format made writing about music fun again; which got me thinking; which got my No Echo co-conspirator, Carlos, throwing ideas at me; and that's how it all began.
Sadly, it's been well over a year since the last grab bag. Hey, what can you do? We're old, we're busy—hell, Birkir has since become a first-time father! (Holy shit! Congratulations, buddy!) Make no mistake, we tried on several occasions—Carlos and I even got a grab bag episode of our own half-started—but schedules stack up, times get tough, and shit gets put on ice.
Then something magical happened: a surprise message from my old pal, Birkir, alerting me that another five songs awaited my perusal. I was so psyched, I returned the favor within seven hours, and here we are!
The rules? The authors send each other five unlabeled tracks. No band names, no song or album titles, no artwork, no dates... nothing. They listen blindly, react spontaneously, then reveal and explain their selections to one another. (Did I mention that it's a lot of fun?)
And now, in its No Echo-hosted debut, welcome to the long overdue Mystery Grab Bag: Episode 7!
Birkir: The arrangements and mood are very Bloc Party throughout, but there's more going on here. This has more raw power and energy than the aforementioned band, who I like very much. So, I'm somewhat predisposed to like this. The vocals aren't your regular affair, and some would say they are a bit too dark and despondent, but for me they set this band apart. I'm cheating here, because this is not my first impression of this song. I gave it a twirl last night, and I kept thinking about these vocals. They stir something within me. This is a very good song. Sneakily loaded, memorable, and packs a punch that very few "indie rock" bands do. I can picture this exploding somewhat in a live setting. Very much looking forward to the reveal, because I'm going to be exploring this band much further.
This Et Al, "Wardens," from Baby Machine (Monotones, 2006)
Andrew: I really flipped out over This Et Al when I first heard their lone full-length back in early-2007, and I've been enthusiastically recommending them to people ever since. At least with regard to how "popular" dark, post-punk types of influences have become as of late, I think they were somewhat ahead of the curve in that regard—active at a time when the band most recognized for such was probably Interpol. But This Et Al definitely had a different take on it, as you noticed—that energy and punch, they make the material jump out at you right away, and the songs can be infectiously catchy. Their entire discography is very good, but the full-length, Baby Machine, is a must-listen, there's no doubt about it. Several of the members have since gone on to other projects, but I think This Et Al was one of those magical circumstances where the pieces just fall into place perfectly, because I've not quite been taken by their post-This Et Al endeavors.
Birkir: I like the chord progression here. Gives it a sad, dramatic feel almost. Melancholic. Turn of the century post-hardcore something... or even mid- to late-'90s. Yeah, probably. A more metallic Falling Forward meets Endpoint. I'm such a stickler for drumming. The drummer's timing is off, and he's playing on the edge. But it wasn't uncommon back in the day. You couldn't—and probably wouldn't—fix or clean things up on a computer. It was a part of the charisma and the band's sincerity to not worry about perfection. I appreciate that. Remember the Brother's Keeper drummer? Okay, I'm off topic here, per usual. I'm gonna listen to this song again. I like this. I probably would have loved this and connected to it on a deeper level when it came out. I remember when similar bands came out and it was like a stimulating reprieve from the more straight-up hardcore, evil metalcore, or batshit-crazycore one would listen to all damn day.
Stronghold, "Slow Burning," from Ad Infinitum... (Doghouse, 1992)
Andrew: Yeah, man, those somber and discordant riffs here are incredible. I'm such a sucker for that stuff, and this track grabbed me right away as a result. I'm sure we've discussed it before, but that's one element of the '90s hardcore sound that contemporary bands have simply failed to capture—that balance between heavy grooves and an almost emo-leaning melodic side. This is Stronghold, from Dayton, OH. The opening track from their second 7", released by Doghouse Records way back in 1992. It's obscure enough to not be on YouTube, of course. I just recently downloaded this from Edwin Heijmen's excellent One Path for Me Through Destiny blog. Edwin's assessment is dead on, too. The band's first 7" was so-so, and then all of a sudden they stepped it up big time with Ad Infinitum... It's a shame this was their final outing, 'cause I'd have loved to have seen where they would have gone from here.
Birkir: Industrial! Catchy enough to have found its way into the European metal press. I know it! I smell it! Jesus, I'm getting this weird feeling, very visceral, transported back in time. Remember Bile? They sound nothing like this, ha. Wait a god damn minute... this is such a steamroller. Simple songwriting here, very effective dual vocals and that anticipation for the guitars to come back in, very Ministry. Sounds like something Nailbomb took their cues from. Like something from Skinny Puppy's Too Dark Park if it was more metal and band-like. This is totally awesome, I love this track, it's got me all revved up and ready to get into fights. Fuck, now I'm gonna revisit some blasts from the past. Funny you should drop this track on me, because last week my brother reminded me of how much we loved the band Fetish 69 when we were teenagers. Yes. I need to revisit aggressive industrial bands.
Optimum Wound Profile, "Drain," from Lowest Common Dominator (Roadrunner, 1992)
Andrew: Ha, I never got into Bile, but I do remember they had that album that came in the yellow case. I bet I would like them now, actually. You'll definitely have me pulling out some Fetish 69 now, too. Blasts from the past, indeed... Anyway, this is, in my opinion, the most underrated of all of those metal-leaning industrial acts of the early- to mid-'90s: Optimum Wound Profile. I've loved this band since I was a kid, and this album, Lowest Common Dominator, is especially incredible. There's a hardcore/punk type of attack to the songwriting, but then at the same time they utilize textural noises and samples to an expert degree, and really integrate them into the compositions as if they were additional instruments. Just awesome. There are so many great songs on this disc, it really should be held in higher regard. I mean, one of the two vocalists was Phil Vane (R.I.P.) from Extreme Noise Terror!? Come on!
Birkir: Yes! Sludgy, but doesn't drag. Instead, hard as nails, gritty, and dynamic. Oh, wait. Jesus, this rules. Dark. Innovative. Oh, shit, this goes well with Track #2 that I gave you, but way more aggression. Yes! This is fucking cool! I'm loving this. Definitely some older, disgruntled guys from the Hydra Head days of "hardcore" that always hated the musical conformity, but are back together to play harsh, ugly, but smart music—showing everyone how it's done. I have no idea who this is, but I'm all about this song. Playing it again. There's a lot happening for the short playing time. Not forced, never overdone. Yeah. Skilled, experienced writers here, I'm assuming—otherwise a song with this many parts would never have panned out.
Sister Rust, "Circadian," from Escapist (Self-Released, 2015)
Andrew: Yeah! This was a last-minute custom pick, just for you. I was almost certain you would love this, and I had only heard it for the first time a few days before we got started on this round. This is a new Orange County, CA band called Sister Rust, and they're awesome. '90s-styled metallic hardcore that leans towards the more discordant and abrasive side of things, but without sounding like a retro throwback attempt, and achieving a great balance of different atmospheres—which I feel this song perfectly encapsulates with its seamless transitions between sludgy rhythms, ringing post-hardcore textures, murky clean passages, and hammering midpaced chugs. Excellent production, too. Hopefully they'll get the attention they deserve. I'm really glad you dig this!
Birkir: Metal guys with some serious prog rock meets alternative rock leanings. Wow, these players don't fuck around. I'm sure this went over people's heads when it came out, due to the music's headiness. I'm in a King's X solidarity secret society with one of my friends. He'd love this. That part that accompanies the long guitar solo kinda goes nowhere. This drummer hits hard. I love how the drums aren't compressed or sound-replaced. You can really feel the dynamics in power when the guy plays, where he lands on the snare, etc. How I miss that. Jawbox meets Dream Theater and Living Coloür! Sure! Can't say I'm floored here, but I've gotta know the members in this band. I'm sure to check out more songs. This kinda music makes me feel good and long for simpler times.
Clockhammer, "Greying Out," from Klinefelter (First Warning, 1992)
Andrew: Well, you may not be floored, but I certainly was! This song is a perfect 10/10 for me. I mean, holy shit, that opening riff! Those bass runs! The way the song chills out to some of the most beautifully lush shit ever, completely outta nowhere!? Whew. It's math rock gone full-on progressive metal, but balled up into an "alternative rock" type of package that just so happens to have a touch of a jam band component happenin', too. So, of course, you're correct that it went over people's heads, and thus you can score this album—by far their best—for a mere $0.01 on Amazon. Insane. This is Clockhammer, by the way, and I have to give Drew Johnston from Electro Quarterstaff a shout-out (wherever he is), 'cause this is just one of many impeccable bands he turned me on to many years ago. (P.S. My third pick from 1992. Clearly I wasn't shooting to cover a wide span of time in this episode!?)
Andrew: This is what I always used to call "crazy go nuts" metalcore in the earlier days of Aversionline. The fact that this song is only 48 seconds long is a strength, for sure, 'cause it's just so damn relentless. Not really my thing, though. It's okay, but it's pretty rare for a band of this nature to hit the mark in a way that captures my interest. I will say, however, that as caustic and chaotic as this is, it doesn't feel sloppy. I have no clue who it is or what year it may have been released, and I'm not even confident enough to make a guess!
World Narcosis, "Dead Days Run Amuck," from World Coda (Self-Released, 2015)
Birkir: "Going nuts" is an understatement. This is World Narcosis. An Icelandic band that musically comes unhinged every time they touch their instruments. Sonically, it hurts, and that is part of the attraction for me. It's like a sinister curiosity, like watching someone hurt themselves and somehow enjoy the spectacle. Live on stage, it's a pretty tough pill to swallow. This is their second release, and getting the guitars down is still a problem, but the album as a whole is both dynamic and exciting. It's absolutely relentless, harrowing, and emotive. Just listen to the second voice that kicks is. It's "terrible," as in "unnerving and almost frightening." One of the most noteworthy releases of the year. Beautifully ugly. My girlfriend hates when I play it. She says it makes her feel physically ill. So there you go. (A side note: for a no-label, D.I.Y. release, the World Coda vinyl is the prettiest-looking release that came out in Iceland this year. Check it out.)
Andrew: From 48 seconds to eight minutes, ha! I'm liking this right away, and curiously it doesn't start out like something that's going to be an eight-minute composition—energetic, surging pulses of bass and drums with lightly distorted chords. Whoa, hang on... now it drops out to sparse electronic pulses, I didn't see that coming at all. It's gonna kick back in heavy and with vocals isn't it? Yep! And there we have it! Awesome, though, holy shit. A little bit of a Neurosis vibe because of the vocals, but as a whole it's not really leaning too literally in that direction. They're doing the drawn-out loud, soft, loud, soft thing; but without the shimmery post-rock bullshit that would have ruined it. Instead, they're very subtly using keyboards, and maybe acoustic guitars? It's hard to say. But the production is massive and detailed and definitely adds to the impact. I don't think it needs to be eight minutes, though, 'cause portions of the journey don't have me on the edge of my seat like that intro did. The hypnotic qualities of the first few minutes are impeccable, though, so you've got my attention. I certainly need to know who this is so I can do some digging...
The Moth Gatherer, "A Road of Gravel and Skulls," from A Bright Celestial Light (Agonia, 2013)
Birkir: I'm totally in love with the Killing Joke meets Breach feel in this song. Those bands are favorites, so this song was sure to become a darling of mine. This is Sweden's The Moth Gatherer. I got this album as a CD promo (the best way to go, labels!) from Agonia Records. As with a lot of Sweden's bands, these guys aren't a one-trick pony. Far from it. And, yes, absolutely, there are more evident Neurosis vibes here and there on the album, more so than on this track. But to me, it comes through one of the vocalists. Keep in mind that over the whole album you'll hear at least four different voices. I'd say that for the genre they are probably wrangled into, they do a pretty good job to stray away from the Isis and Neurosis paths that so many bands lazily tread. Much like Switzerland's Zatokrev, The Moth Gatherer offers something new to a stagnant genre, but both bands are criminally underrated.
Andrew: Synthy. Melodic with a gritty sheen. I'm intrigued. In some ways this is like Depeche Mode meets later Ulver. It walks a line between something that could be more mainstream or more underground. Hell, it could even be some kind of interlude-type piece from a band that typically sounds nothing like this. Not bad. I'm not in love with it, but I like it. I'd listen to more from this artist to get a better feel for what they offer.
Seint, "1000," from Saman (Self-Released, 2015)
Birkir: The artist goes under the moniker Seint. He's actually Joseph Cosmo, from Celestine and I Adapt fame. His beginnings as Seint were way synth-ier. Since then, his recordings have become a bit grittier and livelier. I believe he's walking that line you mentioned. His new album is all in this vein. It's pleasantly cohesive, ranging from aggressive tracks to more pensive ones. It's like Joseph's meditation away from his heavy bands and his hip-hop project. I'll make sure I post helpful links so you can track Seint's development as he keeps releasing EPs online. He's got this nervous industrial thing going on, often Young Gods-like—but I love how Seint conjures up images of Blade Runner chase scenes, or some grim Cyberpunk situations. (Yes, I'm referring to the role-playing game! I had the best game master, see.)
Andrew: The opening clean riff is like an emo band covering Sentenced, and I can't tell if it's going to end up being emo-ish or dark metal. About two minutes in it's getting janglier, but in a weirdly heavy manner. Great bass presence, that's always a plus. I'm now assuming this is going to be an instrumental, and I was wrong: it's neither emo-ish nor dark metal. Shit! Wait! With 30 seconds to spare some full-on screamo vocals kick in, and I can't decipher a single word. Another unexpected twist from this round of tracks. I could envision this band having moments of brilliance, but this particular selection never quite locks in for me.
Bien à Toi, "La Faiblesse," from La Faiblesse (Self-Released, 2013)
Birkir: Ahhh, yes, Sentenced. You are right, the opening minutes of the song have an air of familiarity to them, and it has this build-up "strategy" that became wholly predictable in the wake of Mogwai's influence on "post-metal," and later around Isis' breakthrough. I just like the melancholic vibe here. It gives me images of loneliness. Sometimes, all I can hope for are songs that evoke images in my head. This one does, and when this happens, I put aside any demands of originality. That said, in anticipating the build-ups and loudness for silence, none of those parts sound derivative or typical to me when they finally kick in. This is a French group called Bien à Toi, and this song got released in early-2013. These guys have been sending me hard copies of their releases since the beginning, and it's been an absolute pleasure to see them grow. They are a rare breed of band that can make somewhat stylistic leaps between albums without ever sounding contrived or like they're trying too hard. Many bands attempt this, but the results can be wholly pretentious and embarrassing. You know, when bands have the right idea but lack the wherewithal, sensibility, and talent to make it work. These guys are nothing like that. They can pull it off convincingly. It's a rewarding thing to behold. Just listen to their first screamo-meets-Isis beginnings, and three years later they come out with music that seemingly sounds like another band entirely.
Andrew: Here we go: another synthy, electronic tune; but this one is actually more somber and chilled out, even though it has more of an air of "pop" to it somehow. This is great. Not the kind of thing I encounter or listen to very often, but in terms of songwriting and execution, this is fantastic. Lush vocals, powerful atmosphere, just enough catchiness to stick with you, lots of subtle intricacies... this one strikes a nerve. I'm in. Wow. Yeah. Loving this. You saved the best for last: this is my favorite of the bunch!
Made in Heights, "Panther," from Without My Enemy What Would I Do (Self-Released, 2015)
Birkir: Aside from being a perfect song for me that just has that wistful and beautiful air to it that touches my heartstrings, it also has a personal significance to me. See, my girlfriend picked this song to be a part of our son's birth playlist. I know! The idea was to make a long list of songs she loved, that gave her the feelings she was looking for in order to go with the mood of coming closer and closer to the actual birth process. "Panther" set its hooks in me and hasn't let go since. There's not too much to say, really. I'm no Made in Heights expert, and haven't explored this album. I probably should, what with me running my mouth here. I just love it when young, current-day pop acts reach this deep musically. I adore the additional vocals that sound like an indigenous choir from a place that has nothing to do with the band or the scene it originates from. So beautiful, enticing, dreamy, and somehow tense. It kills me! In the best way possible. It's such a glorious marriage of contradictions. Yes, there is a definite ambiance to this song that resonates with emotional people such as myself.
Check out more great music through our previous installments: