The final short story in James Joyce’s collection Dubliners is entitled “The Dead,” and begins with the following line: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” The story involves an elaborate dance and dinner party thrown annually by the elderly aunts of the protagonist, Gabriel. Lily is the housemaid, and is swept off her feet by the rush of visitors arriving to whom she must attend. All of which has fuck-all to do with heavy metal, right? Well, the reason I invoke this story here has to do with the dual significance of the name Lily. Lilies have associations with funerals and with Easter, thus with both death and rebirth. A Lily stands at the entrance to this house, but whether marking passage to the realm of the dead or the possibility of life renewed remains an unanswered question. SubRosa’s glorious new album No Help For The Mighty Ones exults in this same tension between dark and light, between desolation and triumph, and, just like Joyce’s writing, is a miraculous demonstration of the curative – perhaps transformative – power of art.
So, just what in the hell is it that has got me so worked up?
Well, just in case Salome’s bass-less doom wasn’t enough of a non-traditional set-up, Salt Lake City’s SubRosa is here to twist your head around with three vocalists and two electric violins. Unlike Salome’s more straight-ahead doom aggression, SubRosa plays a sludge metal for open spaces, reminiscent of both the bleak dust-bowl Americana of Earth, Across Tundras, and The Gault, and the textures and melodic flirtations with 90s lo-fi and indie rock that were featured so prominently on Kylesa’s Spiral Shadow. SubRosa’s sound is infinitely bleak and moving, and the album is an immaculately crafted journey that leaves me uncertain of exactly where the album is taking me; I just know that I want to go there.
No Help For The Mighty Ones is, despite all its electric elements, a wonderfully natural-sounding record, thanks to the excellent mixing and mastering of Marduk’s Magnus “Devo” Andersson. The drum production is perfectly organic, and the bass is full and thick and heaves with the crackle of heavily-amped silence, while the guitar has a very dry distortion, giving plenty of space for all the other elements (multiple vocal tracks, strings, the occasional harmonica and dulcimer and so forth) to breathe. The electric violins are consistently engaging throughout the record, often carrying on the type of harmonic dialogue usually reserved for dual guitars. In fact, if one thing could be said to define SubRosa’s essential sound, it would be this communitarian multiplicity of voices – there are multiple vocalists, sure, but the bass tone and the drum fills and the feverish strings also speak lyrically throughout, bathing these sludge-derived riffs in equal measures of sorrow and joy. See? Lily and lily.
If you’re not yet convinced by my enthused ramblings, album opener “Borrowed Time, Borrowed Eyes” will tell you all you need to know about the entire album. The song is inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road, and is suitably desolate, yet enlivened by the beautiful texture of overlapping strings in separate stereo channels. The transition between the deliberate, modal riffing of the verses and the classically heart-tugging chord progression of the chorus hits like a thunderclap, all of which builds to the weary-yet-defiant coda of “How long must my journey go?” The line is eventually doubled vocally and jumped up an octave, and in all truth and honesty, when the strings chime back in for the last few recitations, it’s only some kinda goddamned robot what would not find itself genuinely misty-eyed.
The electric violins drench the riffs in a wide variety of textural atmospherics, from frantic staccato stabs to melodic legato phrasing. Occasionally, the strings invoke the best tension-building passages of Godspeed You Black Emperor! The bass just lumbers along on its own for the first two minutes of “Beneath the Crown,” but then the strings join in. This engrossing string-led riff motif doesn’t actually break the 3/4 meter of the song, but it does force the mind to wrap around its 1-2 / 1-2 / 1-2 / 1-2-3 / 1-2-3 double-time, which sounds a mess but becomes effortlessly entrancing.
One of the only criticisms I’ve been able to muster is that “Stonecarver” takes a bit too long to get going, with its spoken word excerpts from a Russian fairy tale. By the time the tune lurches into proper shape, however, any impatience is soon forgotten. The slow section that starts around 7:50 is just fabulous – sit down and just listen to the earthly hum of the bass when the guitars cut out, and jive along with the magnificently understated drum fills. This brief section, even though it lasts maybe 16 bars or so, is so suggestive of the new Earth record in its familiarity, its warmth, its use of buzz and space as an improvisational tool that I’d be willing to start a petition for a SubRosa/Dylan Carlson collaboration right frigging now. The concluding section with its bellowed, titular chorus (“There’s no help, for the mighty ones”) is equally captivating.
One of the great strengths of the album is that the lyrics are direct, yet lyrical and thoughtful, more like prose-poems than pop songcraft. Though there’s no musical similarity, lyrically, SubRosa displays an affinity with Trent Reznor’s skill at writing short, affecting phrases that, while superficially somewhat plain-spoken, become extremely powerful – almost incantatory – through repetition in their proper musical context. Witness, for example, “The Inheritance,” with its lament, “We’re in the shadow of a dying world.” It’s a hell of a way to close out a nearly flawless side A, with this doomed lyric followed by the haunting dirge of a music-box, echoing across the Great Plains, steadily ticking down its time.
Friends, here is where things get delicate. I hesitate to even broach the issue, but I guess it probably needs to be said: SubRosa is a band with mostly female members. Now, to be clear, I really don’t think this matters even one fucking tiny little bit; still, the world is not always as it should be, and it might just become A Thing that this band is “female-fronted” or “feminine” or “some other stupid bullshit.” Therefore, I can think of few things which would make me happier than that SubRosa could become to metal like Sleater-Kinney has been to punk: meaning, go right ahead and try to make this music somehow about gender, but I guarantee that before you get a word in, your stupid fucking mind will have been blown, and your contrary voice silenced, and your brain will ooze slowly out of your ringing ears in inescapable obedience to the cataclysmic rock thunder, the primordial Ur-music to which each band has carved out its right. So sure, those were some words about sex, but these are above all else sounds about people, so listen up and fuck off.
Like many great albums, No Help For The Mighty Ones is clearly designed like two sides of a record. “Attack on Golden Mountain,” then, is a perfect invocation for the album’s second side, like dawn breaking over craggy mountains and dead trees. Witness again a texturally-rich but spacious and totally open mid-section, which then drops into one of the record’s fattest, most primally-satisfying DOOM riffs. “Whippoorwill,” on the other hand, displays some of the albums most indie-ish moments, with a perfectly gorgeous, forward-driving chorus, drenched in lilting strings, like “Eleanor Rigby”-gone-doomed-Americana. In fact, while we’re on the topic of the vastness of the American plains and the promise of the West, I’d wager a fair amount that at least a few of SubRosa’s members have spent many a long, lonely evening with Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, such is the mournful resonance of this music. SubRosa’s music doesn’t necessarily defy categorization (which has become something of a music critic cliché by now), but it certainly discourages it.
“House Carpenter” trades in the tumbleweeds and mirror-stark mountain lakes of American lore for a stirring a cappella rendition of a Celtic folk song which recalls the rich sadness of contemporary British folk troupe The Unthanks. Album closer “Dark Country” flits between tempos in the verses and chorus, before breaking down into a massive, pit-dredging stomp, accompanied by a panicked flurry of ascending strings. The lyrics plot a map to some ominous inevitability: “I know you’re coming for me now / I feel you coming for me now.” Who knows, too, which Lily will be found in that dark country beyond human reckoning? The song and the album crawl along to a stop amidst smashing drum punishment, until finally, there is only the bass, left to reverberate, disintegrate, and fall apart to buzzing pieces so thick you can practically see the roiling sound waves lengthening, and lengthening, and disappearing.
To bring us back to where we began: Joyce’s story “The Dead” concludes with what is perhaps the most singularly beautiful paragraph in the English language, and while I would typically recoil from quoting any snippet out of its proper literary context, the more I listen to No Help For The Mighty Ones, the more I cannot escape this final, perfect, most heart-rending sentence from Joyce: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
Great art should make the soul feel enlarged through the epiphanic recognition of its utter smallness. Those words do that, as do these sounds, like the descent of their last end.