Last month, I wrote about John Darnielle of the folk rock band the Mountain Goats. Now a full month later, I am still listening to his music on a regular rotation, so I want to talk about another of his songs. He is an excellent lyricist, often coming up with clever analogies to help sell his stories. This is on display in the song “Autoclave” from Heretic Pride, where he describes his heart as an autoclave. For those unaware, an autoclave is a device that uses pressurized steam to sterilize glassware and surgical implements for medical and scientific purposes.
When considering prolific songwriters, John Darnielle of the folk rock band the Mountain Goats quickly comes to mind. Since the Mountain Goats’ inception in the early 90s they have 21 studio albums and countless other releases, ranging from their early recordings that were largely just Darnielle, an acoustic guitar, and a Panasonic RX-FT500 cassette deck Boombox, to more refined recordings with a full band. Darnielle has a talent for painting flawed and realistic characters in his songs, whether that is him putting his own demons on display or crafting a character to fit the story he wants to tell.
Tom Waits has had quite a career trajectory, starting out with fairly conventional folk songs in the early 1970s, before becoming a jazzy crooner grounded by one of the most gravelly voices in popular music, to eventually transitioning into what sounds like the spokesman to a carnival ushering in the apocalypse. Waits has always been interested in exploring themes of isolation and death, focusing on deadbeats, alcoholics, and lost souls, but it was really with the 1992 album Bone Machine that he truly became a troubadour of the End Times. The songs on Bone Machine are even more unhinged than his previous work, which had started to become more and more unconventional, the songs are carried by sparse instrumentation and clanging, awkward percussion. His 1999 album Mule Variations took the sonic weirdness of Bone Machine and combined it with downtrodden, bluesy ballads of his earlier work, creating an album that is much more approachable to the uninitiated.
I spend a lot of time talking about abrasive music on this website, though I did not grow up listening to such things. My younger years were spent with classic rock radio, where I harbored a disdain towards anything that was harsh. That slowly started to change when I was in college, as I began to branch away from late 60s rock. In my junior and senior years, I was engrossed with punk rock and alternative country. I appreciated how many artists in those genres were willing to experiment with sounds outside of the norm. In the realm of alternative country, I found bands like O’Death who were injecting darker and more unhinged elements into folk and country music. My delving into alternative country eventually led me to Hank III, the grandson of the legendary country singer/songwriter Hank Williams, Sr. Hank III’s music is an interesting mixture of traditional country in the vein of his grandfather and hard rock, punk, and metal. The first metal show I ever attended was a Hank III show in 2009 at the now defunct Chameleon Club in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In the first half of the set, Hank III had an acoustic guitar and played his traditional country music. He then let his hair down and replaced his acoustic with an electric guitar and launched into his hard rock songs (a style he prefers to call Hellbilly) followed by his thrash metal/death metal songs (with a band called Assjack). It was fascinating to see so many distinct musical genres on display at one show, and sometimes within a single song. It has now been approximately 9 years since Hank III has released any new music, but fortunately for us, Hank III has a son named Coleman Williams, and he released an album this year!
It is hard to think of a band that works harder than Thou, the prolific doom/sludge metal band from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Since their inception in 2005, they have released a staggering number of releases, including five studio albums and an absurd number of splits and EPs. These have been released across a wide array of record labels, nearly all of them smaller independent labels, helping to show the band’s insistence on a “do it yourself” aesthetic, never wanting to be tied down by the constraints of an overbearing record label. They have used all of these releases to broadly experiment with the genre of sludge metal, thoroughly straying outside the bounds set by pioneering bands of the genre like Eyehategod. I can think of no band that is able to combine the wretchedly ugly with profound beauty as adeptly as Thou. For a genre largely defined by crushing and slowly churning guitar riffs, something like a shimmering post rock guitar line might seem wildly out of place, but Thou do it with a naturalness that makes you question why you ever would have questioned its inclusion.
When it comes to heavy music, my preference is for it to be slow, heavy, and abrasive. I was not attracted to metal for flashy guitar solos and theatrical vocals. Of the myriad of subgenres in heavy music, my favorite is sludge metal. Music of this style takes the slow, down-tuned aspects of heavy metal music and combines them with the aggression of punk rock. One of the early practitioners of this style was the Melvins. Guitarist Buzz Osborne started the Melvins when he was in high school, playing fast hardcore punk music in the style of Black Flag. That all changed when Black Flag released My War in 1984, and slowed tempos down to a crawl on the second half of the album, in the vein of Black Sabbath. Osborne and drummer Dale Crover began to experiment with slower music themselves and helped give birth to sludge metal and drone metal. In the band’s almost 40 years of existence, they have released a lot of albums and have experimented widely with sounds and styles, though it is primarily for their slow and heavy material that they are known.
One of the most affecting and memorable live performances of my life was seeing Jon Padgett doing a reading of Thomas Ligotti’s short story “The Bungalow House”, accompanied by live guitar and electronics performed by Chris Bozzone. It was my first introduction to the work of Thomas Ligotti, a contemporary horror writer who espouses a particularly dismal world view, and uses his work as a means to explore this outlook. Padgett, a fantastic author of weird fiction himself, did an amazing job invoking the crushing loneliness of the narrator of “The Bungalow House”. I was utterly spellbound, hanging on every word, caught up in a horror that was far more affecting than the hackneyed violence that is the hallmark of many modern horror tales. I came away from the event as a fan of Ligotti’s fiction, and of Jon Padgett, as well. He read his own story “20 Simple Steps to Ventriloquism”, and I was astounded at his ability to take something as mundane as a guide book (the story is presented as a guide to becoming a skilled ventriloquist and beyond), and turn it into something deeply unsettling. This event was hosted by Cadabra Records, who had just released a spoken word vinyl record of “The Bungalow House”, with Jon Padgett doing the reading and Chris Bozzone handling the instrumentation. This event was a live recreation of that release, and the first event of its kind hosted by Cadabra Records. Although it is hard to believe now, this event occurred back in May of 2019, more than three years ago! I have been eager for Cadabra Records to host similar events, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic prevented that.