Originally written by Jordan Campbell
Sludge is one of the laziest, most stagnant subgenres in heavy metal today. Plagued by predictable compositions and gormless bellowing, it’s been mired in an amateurish rut for years. Sure, there’s been the inevitable injection of drone, post-, and other buzzy euphemisms for “rifflessness” to keep things hip, but contemporary beacons of relevance are rare. Most casual sludgers just wait around for Eyehategod to come stumbling through their local dive.
Within Kowloon Walled City, hope springs. Their 2009 debut, Gambling on the Richter Scale, garnered a small-but-boisterous following. The album was raw in all the right places—preferring to emote rather than pummel—and tracks like “Diabetic Feet” were surprisingly dexterous.
A few not-so-quiet years later, KWC has returned with Container Ships, an aesthetic marvel that threatens to render them the bleak-ass beacon that sludge so craves. Guitarists Scott Evans and Jon Howell made a brilliant shift here, altering their once-standard guitar tone into something that rivals a bloated, bummed-out Godflesh. The resulting vibe is one that is perfectly encapsulated by Container Ships‘ striking cover: Broken. Bleak. Yearning for warmth. This is a phenomenal guitar album, packed with rounded, rolling riffs that don’t bludgeon as much as they bury.
But amidst the pulverizing low-end of “The Pressure Keeps Me Alive” and the burly stoicisms of “Cornerstone,” KWC is continually hamstrung by the one of the very elements that sets them apart: Evans’ vocal approach.
Now, sludge has long been metal’s friendliest arena for the surprisingly-unreviled “we don’t have a real singer so we’ll just toss this guy behind the microphone” approach. (Lest you need to be reminded, Brent Hinds probably gets paid more than you do.) Evans presents an undemanding audience with a unique style—his pained, hardcore-indebted yelps are more MacKaye than Windstein—but it’s often a liability. Take the should-be anthem “Wrong Side of History,” for instance:
The not-quite-soaring chorus could’ve been so much more when plugged into the pipes of a vocalist that could handle it. KWC is a band on the cusp of brilliance; often, they sound as if they’re outwriting / outthinking themselves. From the novel crush of the record’s first two minutes to the frustrating, flat-out terrible coda of “You Don’t Have Cancer,” the band repeatedly shatters the rules only to slice their tendons with the shards.
The tones may be (delightfully) different and the approach more noise-fueled, but KWC will still struggle to find a home outside of the vocals-as-an-afterhought crowd. That’s either symptomatic of a band still struggling to harness their talent, or a tragic abdication of responsibility. Let’s hope it’s the former. Kowloon Walled City is too deft a collective to be crippled by a single voice.