Here’s an undeniably sexy way to start a review of some heavy metal music: sometimes what ends up shaping one’s impression of a piece of music is dictated much more by the frame of reference one brings to it than by the objective particulars of the music itself. If you go into a death metal album expecting to hear abstract power electronics, it might just sound like Frank Sinatra. If you go into a death metal album expecting to hear Frank Sintra, though, it might just sound like a rabid kangaroo drop-kicking anvils at your soft bits.
The point I’m driving at here is that if you go into Neanderthal, the new EP from Defect Designer, with Norway’s Diskord (and especially their latest album Degenerations) as your frame of reference, everything will likely make a certain amount of sense. If you’re coming into this relatively fresh, then… well, you might want to buckle up.
You see, Defect Designer is a death/grind band in much the same way that Voivod is a thrash band, which is to say: yeah… sort of?… but also not really at all. The EP is called Neanderthal and boasts songs called “Trolls” and “Pigsty,” but it also has one of the most insanely brilliant album covers imaginable (courtesy of the incredible Ian Miller) plus the band’s Metal-Archives picture gives a sneak peek of such Known Sophistication Signifiers as a 7-string guitar and 5-string bass. The world, as I have likely said many times before, is wide and full of wonder, and I am always in search of stupid music played smartly, and of smart music played stupidly.
Defect Designer started in Russia but is now located in Norway, having parted ways with all original members except Dmitry Sukhinin, who joined up with Diskord and played on Degenerations (which at least one completely lovable scamp picked as the best album of 2021). Now Sukhinin’s bandmates seem to have repaid the favor, with Diskord’s Eyvind Axelsen joining Defect Designer on bass. And while there are undeniable similarities between Diskord’s Degenerations and Defect Designer’s Neanderthal (precise technicality played with an appealing looseness, a certain twitchy playfulness, huge amounts of sheer sass), Neanderthal is ruder, more aggressive, and almost deliriously impatient, turning the EP’s economical 18 minutes into something like a music conservatory recital by a death metal savant with ADHD.
The album’s title track pounds into grisly life with an intentionally ignorant stomp. The vocals throughout, by Sukhinin with backing from second guitarist Martin Storm-Olsen, are an extremely sore throat-sounding type of holler that sometimes alternates with deeper gutturals for an unpredictable but consistently antagonistic sound. “Trolls” kicks off with some of the album’s most death metal-forward riffing, but even here, things quickly weird themselves, whether through a pogoing bounce or the focal point of Eyvind Axelsen’s bass, which frequently sounds like an industrial-sized rubber band twanging near to its breaking point.
“Wrinkles” is a more straightforwardly structured song, kicking off with a riff motif that’s decorated around the edges with some excellent light-touch cymbal work from drummer Simen Kandola, but then just after the 3-minute mark, things take a serious left turn into almost a klezmer or polka stutter-beat. Defect Designer makes these oddities work not so much by weaving them seamlessly into the fabric of the songs, but by making perfectly clear that they don’t give much of a shit whether their flights of pure id make sense to neutered hermeneutics junkies such as myself.
Defect Designer don’t sound like either Mr. Bungle or the Dillinger Escape Plan, but there’s a sense that their music is animated by the same combination of anarchic irreverence and whiplash precision. “Vlad” illustrates this well, in how across its two-minute runtime it flits between punishing drum trickery, a ludicrously sassy strut (starting around 0:25), a quick little almost-solo from the guitar, a change-up break at 1:15 that sounds like the band is about to trip down a flight of stairs, and then a seasick lurch that resolves into a sputtering drum coda. It’s entirely linear and moves from A to B to C, but in such a way that if you found yourself at B and tried to predict how they might get to C, you’d probably end up confusing yourself so badly that you end up pouring a canteen of hot soup down your pants.
“Luddites” has a killer guitar solo early on, and then towards the end they pull out a tandem-guitar needling lead against a crumbling drum-led slowdown, eventually joined by the bass for a funhouse mirror version of a guitar heroics frontline. The album closes with the instrumental “Time, Forward,” which initially builds itself around bass arpeggios and tricky mathiness. Around the 1:00 mark the guitars take over with some major-key arpeggios that sound like they should be soundtracking a particularly majestic plot point in a superhero movie. And then, y’know, it’s just sort of over. There’s a nicely resolving climax that almost startles you in its abruptness, but if you’d just quit being so precious already you could play the thing over again and take better notes.
In truth, Neanderthal is a sort of meticulous chaos, and one gets the sense that the experience of listening to it would not be appreciably different if you played these seven tracks in a random order each time. Does this mean that Neanderthal is structureless? No; shut up. Does this mean that Neanderthal’s structure invites you to question whether you understand it? Yes; shut up. Does Defect Designer sound like if Darkthrone’s Soulside Journey somehow landed on Relapse Records in the early 2000s alongside Cephalic Carnage and Agoraphobic Nosebleed? Yes; no; shut up; fuck you.
I hope I am making myself clear: this is extremely good and fun music. Sometimes that’s the only frame of reference you need.