Back in 1998, I found myself in a hoity-toity bar in Park City, Utah on a night when a band called Whiskeytown was due to play a show in support of an album called Strangers Almanac. This was long before the name Ryan Adams became synonymous with Taylor Swift, and certainly long before the man started wearing Emperor long-sleeves during live performances. Anyway, it was a small venue and a very modest turn-out, and it also turned out to be an evening filled with genuinely odd occurrences, one of which involved my being approached by the “metal-minded” Whiskeytown guitarist who wasn’t Adams because he was interested in acknowledging the King Diamond/Them shirt I was wearing over by the pool table.
After a couple games and several disheartening 3.2 beers, I asked “would you guys consider the music you play to be country?” It was a question that sparked my curiosity because “insurgent country” was becoming a thing, thanks largely to innovators such as Uncle Tupelo, and many bands seemed determined to distance themselves from the country tag because of its partnership with your uncle Jep who loves Brooks & Dunn and always keeps a Bud Light Lime beer koozie at the ready in the glove compartment of his Silverado 3500. Directly on cue, the guitarist answered “Nah, we’re just a rock and roll band, man.”
What the hell does that have to do with the price of fish? Well, Kowloon Walled City might be considered a sludge band, but it’s all just rock and roll, man. Ask Lemmy. Ask Bruce Dickinson. Ask Erik Danielsson in [X-amount-of] years.
Is sludge really such a bad word, though? One might assume so, based purely on how quickly the off-shoot surged and how sharply it managed to decline, particularly over the course of the last few years. But as is often the case, once the dust finally manages to settle, the true gems end up shining through like diamonds, which is precisely what’s going down with regard to these Bay Area browbeaters.
Referring to Kowloon Walled City simply as a sludge band is misleading, however. Perhaps it was right on the mark for 2009’s Gambling on the Richter Scale, but a gradual shift toward a slower, less raw/more graceful sound that maximized melancholy helped make 2012’s Container Ships stand out, and it’s something that’s pushed to a pinnacle with album #3, Grievances.
The formula remains distinctly recognizable, however: It’s an engine built via a surprisingly straightforward, nimble ‘n’ noisy interplay between drums, bass and guitars that’s stripped of extraneous bells and whistles, and it’s all still hedged by the admittedly one-dimensional, shouted vocal approach of guitarist Scott Evans that serves to tether the band to its sludgy roots more-so than any other element. But where the band’s debut and sophomore release flashed big, swingin’ riffs weighty enough to topple concrete, Grievances mostly relies on the dual guitar work to push an overall mood that’s as mournful and desperate as a lost Warning album crammed through a noise-rock filter. (You beardfarmers out there should feel free to replace the word “Warning” with “Pallbearer,” if you’d rather.) The whole of “The Grift” and the majority of “White Walls” clearly delivers an ample share of walloping denseness to intensify the record’s midsection, but the rest of the material here carries the most comprehensively dismal outlook I’ve heard on a heavy record in 2015.
The tragic mood makes sense, though, considering where the band calls home. On the surface, the San Francisco/Bay Area appears to be a shining mecca of creative opportunity, but the heart and spirit of this magnificent stomping ground is slowly being choked down to a withered husk of its former self, thanks to the mammoth influx of entitled 20-somethings with fresh advanced degrees in iPhone App Development, Sharing Economics and Global Shitbaggery who’ve wriggled their way into the city’s fabric with money to motherfucking burn. The plight of the city’s sizable artist population who struggle to maintain any sort of grip is perfectly illustrated by the slow, heartbreaking collapse of urban Godflesh meets gloomy doom that gives the bulk of this record such a captivating affection.
“You want the city on fire, you can have it. Now raise a glass and admit it.”
Closer “Daughters and Sons” tacks a modicum of jangly optimism to the upbeat manner in which it breaks from the gate, which is comforting, but even this tune eventually stomps the brakes and throws a sobering & somber period on the end of the comprehensive Grievances story.
In the end, a band such as this ain’t exactly inclined to appeal to a huge populace. KWC deliver a brand of heavy that’s sluggish, stripped, shouting and excessively bleak, and it’s probably best enjoyed alone and as a suitable soundtrack for contemplating the many failures of modern civilization. Party music for those who find themselves occasionally wandering the city streets awestruck by the fact that the classic burrito joint that’s been on the corner for the last 30 years just magically transformed into an artisanal bubble tea froyo shoppe that gives 10% discounts to any ramrod wearing Google glasses.
Thankfully, rock and roll is here to stay. March into the fire, slowly and with your head hanging low.