‘Phasing between post-sludge breakdowns and positively soaring riffs’ – MacDara Conroy on Kowloon Walled City’s Grievances
Have you heard of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? It’s another term for the cognitive bias of ‘frequency illusion’: that feeling when you hear a word or a phrase, perhaps for the first time, but from a variety or sources in different circumstances, and with a recurrence that verges on alarming, like you’ve discovered a glitch in the matrix.
Anyway, that’s a roundabout way of me telling you I’ve been seeing and hearing the phrase ‘bummer jam’ thrown around a lot recently. Mostly it’s been in reference to the depressive doom of the mighty-feeble Harvey Milk – all drawn-out riffs, pounding percussion and anguished vocals. But it’s also perfectly suited to Bay Area heavyweights Kowloon Walled City, newer kids on the block clearly taking their cues from those Athens brain-bruisers – I mean, in this genre (if it is a genre) who isn’t? – but maybe with a tad more groove in their step? Less bummer, more jam?
That’s certainly the case with their third long-player Grievances, their first for Neurosis’ imprint Neurot Recordings and the best thing that label’s released in ages. Part of it is in guitarist/vocalist Scott Evans’ improved production, scaling the crispy recorded jam-room sound of 2012’s Container Ships with a much bigger and bolder scope. It’s all right there in the first strains of opener ‘Your Better Years’, that upfront, rich guitar tone picking a plaintive figure before Jeff Fagundes’ mammoth drums crash in, and Ian Miller (son of screenwriter Victor Miller, who wrote the first Friday the 13th, trivia fans) fills the remaining space with his enormous bass sound, creaking around the edges like an old ship’s hull.
Evans’ vocals are foregrounded stronger, though retaining that shouts-through-a-megaphone decay, apt for his D Boon-style impassioned sloganeering that’s fit for a protest march rather than the musician’s stage. “We’ve had better years, but bad years look better when they’re gone,” he chants in the opener, and it’s less a song lyric than sound advice from a friend who’s been through some shit and then some.
But there’s better flow here, too. Container Ships was a good collection of songs, but Grievances is an album in the best possible sense, the mood of ‘Your Better Years’ blending seamlessly into the title track’s syncopated bars that in turn pave the way for a hair-raising shift in the middle to a stomping, crushing riff-out. Then ‘Backlit’ echoes that stomp in its first moments before stretching out into a slow-paced jam with occasional breath-tightening double-time snare hits – a motif ‘The Grift’ doubles down on, with Evans’ and Jon Howell’s downtuned strings alternately playing off each other with complementary melodies and meshing for that twin-guitar power attack. You get the idea.
There’s no illusion to this frequency; ‘White Walls’ and ‘True Believer’ continue in the same vein, phasing between post-sludge breakdowns and positively soaring riffs. And it’s all leading to the final track, ‘Daughters and Sons’, where the depressive sentiments of Evans’ words (“There’s no home for us here”) contrast the motivational thrust of the rhythm section and layers of slashing and chugging guitars – then a pause, and a deep exhalation as the song, and the record, gently dismantles itself, Kowloon Walled City having settled their grievances over the course of a cathartic 38 minutes.