[Cover art by Jeff Rogers]
Various forms of the word punish show up in heavy music reviews on a regular basis. Considering it’s a style of music founded on distortion and noise that was created as an act of counter culture, punishment isn’t surprising. We relish the hideous clamor of Deicide’s music, yet it has been used to brutalize ears during military interrogations. Musicians in the scene know us fans love the ugliness, but some bands make it their mission to challenge our limits. In Decibel’s Hall of Fame feature on Neurosis’ Through Silver in Blood, Steve Von Till discussed the fact that the band would dedicate overly long stretches of their Ozzfest sets to just playing guitar feedback because “As much as we appreciated our audience, it was really like, ‘Let’s make them pay. Let’s punish those people.’” Art as punishment is a tricky line to tread that rarely works, but for many bands that is the only way for them to authentically express themselves.
The good news is that album number four, Songs for the Enamel Queen, shows Black Sheep Wall stretching their style and finding new ways to suck the life out of their audience without relying solely on squalls of noise or repeating one riff to the point of beating a dead horse. That’s not to say the album isn’t still run through with feedback or blasts of noise (the opening stretch of “Ballad of a Flawed Animal” offers little to grab onto), but rather that these tools have become more refined and carefully utilized. Black Sheep Wall offers as many moments of ear-splitting chaos as they do big riffs backed by relentless rollicking drums reminiscent of Remission-era Mastodon. The album still approaches an hour and four of the seven songs go beyond the ten-minute mark, but no two songs follow the same blueprint.
Album opener, “Human Shaped Hole,” is an immediate nod to Converge with a speedy riff that shifts to an absolute mid-paced crusher before lapsing into a simple hypnotic repetition while former bassist turned vocalist Brandon Gillichbauer goes off on a tirade. The song feels like a middle finger to critics who thought they were only capable of writing lengthy sludge tunes. “New Measures of Failure” torments the listener by spending almost the entire second half with somber cleaner guitar notes that are built upon with subtle layers and extra notes, but never turn back into the big hit they seemed to be building toward. The band opts to instead blue-balls the audience by letting the song simply fade out in its final moments. “Concrete God,” however, delivers on the previously false promise with a hint of groove in their sludge before creating decimation through a passage that sounds like a hardcore band’s take on doom.
The final three tracks on Songs for the Enamel Queen are really where violent dominance is asserted over the listener. “Ren” sees drummer Jackson Thompson start with an absolute barrage of fills and rolls for the early stretch that never lets you relax. Then the second half of the song throws a trumpet into the mix, which seems like it should brighten the song, but instead signals a somber dirge that would be played at a jazz musician’s funeral. Rather than end with the slow fade out like “New Measures of Failure”, “Ren” pulls a fast one by spending its final two minutes swinging for the fences and battering you back into submission.
“Mr. Gone” opens with slow-picked notes that are permitted to echo into fading in a manner that harkens to Neurosis’ most tense moments. The guitars begin to wail with feedback while the vocals turn visceral and by the three-minute mark Gillichbauer offers some deeper vocals that had not previously appeared and the song turns into pure tumult. There are roars over a void of sound, a hi-hat-driven breakdown passage, unhinged barking, and a beast of a repeated passage that brings the song to a truly heavy climax. Closer, “Prayer Sheet for Wound and Nail,” is a steady build that feels like the band simply taking one last chance to get everything off their chest. This song features the most repetition while clean notes that teeter toward uplifting but probably more like the sound of coming to be at peace with misery.
That stretch is where I find myself a bit torn. Part of me thinks the album would be better without the final track because “Mr. Gone” offers a better climax and it would allow a shorter runtime that could make the album a bit more digestible. Then again, that’s not really what Black Sheep Wall aim to do, so perhaps that wouldn’t be as authentic of an experience.
The fellows featured above don’t look like merchants of misery, so how did they create such a brutal experience? Gillichbauer’s self-loathing lyrics are a big part of what makes this album so draining. According to the press materials, “The lyrics are a documentation of my life during the five years between our last album and this one. Addiction and depression have been my most committed and intimate relationships to date, destroying my connections with my friends, this band, and myself.”
Would you like some examples?
“I hope I make you embarrassed. I hope you’re afraid. I hope you keep me a secret. I hope you’re ashamed.”
“My biggest mistake was trusting the shithead that is me.”
“It makes me sick that you find comfort in your own skin.”
“I honestly thought things would matter. I don’t like who I am.”
Every word is delivered with a genuine feeling of pain and that puts a taxing emotional heft on anyone who listens. The upside to this extra weight is it makes for an album that feels much more worthwhile than the average band that simply spews generic hate or gore.
Heavy music is geared toward a relatively narrow audience and Black Sheep Wall’s take on it makes finding willing participants even more difficult. For those that are open to an album that will leave you exhausted, Songs for the Enamel Queen should be at the top of your list for things to check out.