Stop It!!'s album, "Self-Made Maps," has probably gotten more play from me than anything else over the two weeks since I saw them. As with their live show, something I hadn't expected to have much of an opinion about has completely blown me away. As far as I'm concerned, any discussion of this album has to begin with the album's centerpiece, "Remove Your Teeth". This song encapsulates everything about "Self-Made Maps" that I love, distilled into one four-minute anthem. It seems that Stop It!! (hereafter to be written without exclamation points) themselves understood that this was their strongest song. From its position in the exact middle of the album, it anchors the entire affair, and the song before it, the short instrumental "A Clever Play On Words", seems placed before "Remove Your Teeth" just in order to set the stage for that song. As the final notes of "A Clever Play On Words" fade into an echoing instrumental coda, "Remove Your Teeth" explodes into action, beginning with a furious dual-snare drum roll that is topped by frantic dueling guitars. The lack of bass on this section of the song indicates that bassist Adam Juresko is playing the second snare drum, as he often did live when I saw them. After a few repetitions of the opening riff, the drums drop out, coming back in a few seconds later with a trick I can't help but associate with Fugazi: as the guitars continue their frenetic strumming, the bass and drums drop into a much slower riff. Stop It don't use it the same way Fugazi did, though; instead of creating a mellower groove than the listener initially expected, they use this technique to build an even greater tension than the guitars and snares had already created at the beginning of the song.
When the vocals come in, though, everything changes. Adam's screaming technique is pretty standard in hardcore, but when combined with the more melodically oriented voice of guitarist Brendan Trache, a different texture is created. This is especially true when the two trade lines, with Brendan's voice giving a more mournful feel to Adam's urgent screams. This is somewhat of a surprise after the song's ferocious opening, but it's nothing compared to the shock that comes soon after, when drummer Jeff Grant takes his only vocal turn in Stop It's entire discography. Jeff isn't screaming at all, but full-on singing, and the emotion in his voice touches me every time I listen to the song, even though I don't know what he's singing about. The music slowly grows quieter as he sings, until by the end of his verse, his voice is the only thing left. Then on the last word, the whole band kicks back in full force, and it's enough to knock me on my ass right there.
There are other powerful moments on the album, especially in "Captain Roboto" and the closing "Beethoven's Funeral", and they often come from the same epic approach that "Remove Your Teeth" takes. Beginning as it does with more standard hardcore and moving away from that sound as it progresses, "Self-Made Maps" works well as an entire album and not just a collection of songs. City of Caterpillar brought the concept of longer, more dynamic songwriting into hardcore a few years ago, and bands like Stop It have picked up well on the possibilities that this approach presents. In the wrong hands, this approach could quickly have led to wankery, so it's good to see that, at least in some cases, that hasn't happened.
The Brainworms demo is an interesting and, in my experience, unique document. Not only is the entire thing recorded live in the studio with no overdubs, but the band even invited some of their friends into the studio to watch, so that it sounds more like a live album than anything else. The fact that Brainworms did this only adds to the initial impression I got of their band. It reminds me of the Deathreat project that members of His Hero Is Gone and From Ashes Rise did a few years ago: formed quickly amongst a group of friends who mostly had other bands they were involved in, Brainworms wrote a set of songs and began playing shows knowing that most of the members would be moving out of town at the end of the summer. The spontaneity and adventurous spirit in which the band was begun shows through in this recording, with members talking to the crowd between songs and at one point asking for more heckling, since the set was being recorded. In the midst of all that, though, some serious emotions are shared, in particular on the song "Sunrise Dudes", which has the best lyrics I've read in a long time. In part, they go: "I'm sorry I haven't called, there are just so many ways I can't explain this empty space in my soul. It's not because I don't want in anymore. Will you answer me truthfully: do I suck? Do you not want to be around me? Maybe I'm the dark sky on your fucking parade. Would you put me off until my happier days?" This is a sentiment that I myself feel a lot of the time when I think about my friends, and sometimes it leads to me not calling, not going out, sitting at home alone because I figure no one wants me around anyway. I was moved to tears the first time I read those lyrics, just because I feel so often like I'm alone in my feelings, that no one else knows what I'm going through. Sometimes it really helps to have someone else share in the struggles that you're afraid to admit.
It doesn't hurt that the music is brilliant as well. Knowing the heavy ex-member factor that Brainworms feature (Are You Fucking Serious?!?, The Ultra Dolphins, Stop It!!, Municipal Waste, etc etc), one could be forgiven for assuming that they'd play loud, heavy hardcore. This is just not the case--instead the songs are constructed around fundamentally melodic rock n' roll riffs that are equal parts mid-80s emocore and the late 80s post-hardcore stuff that my friend Eric always calls "proto-grunge". "Sunrise Dudes" in particular has a chorus that could have been on a Rites of Spring or One Last Wish record, while "Gnar Gnar" evokes a more melodic take on Swiz, maybe mixed with a bit of "Flip Your Wig" era Husker Du. It's not a sound that I expect when I go to check out a new hardcore band in this day and age, but I think that might be a lot of the reason it works so well. Bands who can do a modern update on styles that no one plays anymore can succeed at creating a fresh sound where a lot of other bands who just fall into the lines of whatever's current would end up boring and mediocre. It's something that more musicians should attempt.
Finally, I have to mention Meth and Goats, and their album "Attack From Meth and Goats Mountain". The album is on Electric Human Project, and it's good to see a band who have been laboring away in obscurity for over half a decade finally get some recognition from higher profile labels. Their album has a bit of a different feel than their live performance that I reviewed a few weeks ago did; rather than primarily reminding me of 80s indie rock as it did live, on record their music is most evocative of the strange, dark, chaotic hardcore that was coming out of southern California in the early 90s. In fact, the bands who were most interesting in those days almost always ended up being the ones who recorded for southern California labels, but were coming from relative isolation, such as Cupertino, CA's Mohinder or Boulder, CO's Angel Hair. Meth and Goats aren't similar to either of those bands in sound, but they definitely have that similar dark, chaotic vibe, as well as emerging from complete isolation with a sound unlike that of any of their contemporaries. If they remind me of anyone on record, it's the early VSS, the band that came after Angel Hair and moved away from hardcore, simultaneously incorporating far more influence from both math-rock and goth spheres. I don't think there's anything directly goth about Meth and Goats, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that the members are familiar with Joy Division or Bauhaus. They create more of a groove in their music than either of those bands, owing primarily to the masterful drumming of Ray Malone, as well as the way guitarist Dennis Hockaday and bassist Talbot Borders interact with the rhythms Ray lays down. Meth and Goats often invert the standard structure of a rock band, with Dennis's guitar hewing most closely to the rhythm of the song through repeated chords and staccato strumming. Talbot's sinuous bass lines weave their way around and through what Dennis is playing, taking more liberties with rhythm structure and interjecting both melody and funk groove into the songs. Underneath all of this, Ray is mostly left free to improvise, following his instincts like a jazz drummer and in many places on the album getting as far away from the standard beat as he can go before reeling it all back in.
Meth and Goats's music is interesting to listen to from a technical standpoint for these reasons, but it wouldn't be worth anything if it didn't keep things exciting. Fortunately, it does this quite well, especially on songs like "Tell Me I'm Powerful", which features steadily increasing tension until a point midsong when the entire band hits chords, then chokes them off for seconds at a time. The effect is that of several false endings in a row, which pulls the rug right out from under the listener before going into a completely different riff that takes the whole song in a new direction, eventually culminating in a transition to "God's Got Money" that sounds less like a change in songs and more like a midsong pause. They're messing with us, but in fine fashion. An even better indication of this fact is that 5/4 time signatures sound perfectly normal here, while "Psychic Car Crashes," the entirety of which is in 4/4, sounds woozy and fucked up, as if it's constantly adding and dropping beats. It all rocks, but it's a strange kind of rock. Sometimes that's what's needed, though.