“Many of the tracks collapse upon themselves, unable to bear the weight of their own fury.” – MacDara on Old Man Gloom‘s No.
Of all the bands featuring the talents of Hydra Head Records founder Aaron Turner, the post-metal outfit Isis are probably the most recognised and acclaimed, but they’re not the most interesting in my view. That honour should belong to Old Man Gloom, a ‘supergroup’ of sorts with Nate Newton of Converge, Cave In’s Caleb Schofield and Santos Montano of Zozobra (plus a few fellow travellers along the way). Started by Turner and Montano in 1999, when Hydra Head was just starting to be a thing in the underground, Old Man Gloom swiftly evolved into a collaborative effort between all its members, as well as an opportunity for them to take a break from their maybe more serious primary roles and have some fun with music. Hence the kitchen-sink approach to records like Seminar II/III and their previous album Christmas, released in 2004 when Turner’s label was arguably at its peak (it’s when breakout act Cave In were signed to a major, anyway).
Interestingly, this is the first OMG record to be released on Hydra Head proper; previous albums and EPs came out on Tortuga Recordings, a subsidiary imprint for more left-field projects like the avant grind of Tusk and the ‘acid mountain rock’ of Scissorfight. It’s funny to contemplate that now, because if anything Old Man Gloom are the quintessential Hydra Head band. They distill the essence of what the label and its unique discography stand for, cutting out the most volatile elements of hardcore and metal and collaging them into new forms. And that’s even more the case with NO – a title, and an album, reflecting the members’ “cumulative response to a lifetime of saying ‘yes'”.
Stylistically it’s not an enormous departure from Christmas, despite the eight-year gap. We’re still talking heavy post-hardcore with an artsy bent. But it shows greater focus both musically (there’s less of the obviously unorthodox instrumentation and random noodly passages) and most definitely in terms of theme. Gone are the quirky song titles and playful genre-hopping of old, in favour of a mood that’s overwhelmingly aggressive and unquestionably dark. NO sounds very much the result of underground musicians venting their frustrations, whether at the difficulties of making a living doing what they love, or about the sacrifices they’ve had to make along the way, both personally and creatively. The pending closure of Hydra Head is a less welcome outcome of the same struggles.
I think of the title of an early Cave In song, ‘Controlled Mayhem Then Erupts’, and it seems an apt description for what’s going on here. Many of the tracks collapse upon themselves, unable to bear the weight of their own fury. Some – like the immense 14-minute closing opus ‘Shuddering Earth‘ – decay into chaotic yet beautiful nebulae of sound; others (‘Shadowed Hand‘, ‘Rats‘) burn slowly before erupting like supernovae. The lyrics, too, are at one with the terrors the music conveys. When Turner bellows on ‘Common Species‘ about filthy insects being “swallowed into the depths“, the onomatopoeia makes it frighteningly palpable. The clouds part slightly for the Torche-esque euphoric riffage on ‘The Forking Path‘ but that’s very much the exception. Melancholy is the rule when the acoustic guitar comes out for the campfire lament of ‘Crescent‘. And even their ambient noise leanings, which are still present here, are infused with a visceral bleakness, channeling real emotion rather than just being noise for noise’s sake.
Taken as a statement, NO proves beyond doubt that this crew can still rage against the dying of the light. But they’re old men now, and they need their rest.