A severe problem with modern boundary-pushing extreme metal and punk is that so many bands aim to push at boundaries at the expense of actual songwriting, which often leads to releases that are interesting1 – whatever the hell that word actually means – but not listenable. An album can entertain new concepts all it once, but if the songs themselves don’t actually create music to which one can listen, then such experiments are rendered moot – or at least less powerful and forward-thinking than their creators intended. An example of a guilty release is Liturgy’s The Ark Work, which utilized MIDI samples and electronic flourishes to deconstruct the bleakness and self-obsession all too common in black metal but ended up becoming a laughable release whose attempt at not taking itself too seriously took itself way too seriously. An example of a not-guilty release is Sunn O)))’s Monoliths & Dimensions, which incorporated Coltrane jazz and classic orthodox liturgical chants into drone/doom metal in a striking commentary on the ability for music genres to synthesize and respect others in a world where subcultures – especially in the digital era – are all too often danger of balkanization.
Nux Vomica live at a curious junction between crust punk, doom metal, and death metal – three genres that are often mixed and matched between one and another, but very rarely all three at once; and much less with the aplomb demonstrated by this Portland, Oregon group. Their self-titled album is their third full-length release; it’s out on extreme music heavyweight label Relapse Records. It’s only three tracks long, but in those three tracks the band fit over forty-four minutes of blistering punk, heartbreaking doom, ferocious riffing, and impassioned lyrics to create one of the most forward-thinking albums in heavy metal of the post-noughties. And the most important part: with extreme song lengths (with one pushing twenty minutes), constant tempo and key changes, and versatility of playing; these experiments actually sound good.
Take “Choked at the Roots” for example. From a beginning section of feedback-induced doom to a punk rock explosion that would not be out of place on an old school Refused full-length to a five-minute heartfelt instrumental back to punk rock – fitting more ideas into a single album than most bands will do in three – it all sounds incredible, and the track never feels its length.
Or “Reeling,” a track that viscerally describes the slow decay of a nine-to-five, twenty-years-til-retirement office worker and makes it a rallying cry for living – not surviving. Whereas Radiohead took the melancholic interpretation on OK Computer‘s “No Surprises,” Nux Vomica’s is choleric; a pushback against the idea that one’s life is simply to get through the day so they can enjoy their life rather than making the entire day a celebration of one’s agency. Whereas the lyrics themselves are akin to the self-mourning of Radiohead’s protagonist in their description of mind-numbing apathy, the instrumentation is anything but as it takes the fuel one could direct toward despondency and instead put it toward an impassioned plea for life, not death-in-life.
Might as well not forget “Sanity for the Passive,” which opens with a fiery condemnation of onanistic self-involvement for the sake of universal well-being. With the delivery of lyrics like “unwittingly, we mimic society / with our sub-sects, genres, and in-fighting / not realizing that our constant agitation / has roots in our need for transient migration / to exist like this is a constant struggle / and sanity is a state of mind reserved for the passive,” one would be tempted to believe the group grew up on DC hardcore punk. It’s dangerously serious, but its lack of flirtation with novelty for novelty’s sake and its tightness of songwriting make it dangerous in the sense of inspiration rather than parody.
This release is necessary for fans of expressive songwriting, headbanging fury, intelligent lyrics, and genuine emotional passion – much less any aspect of punk rock and heavy metal. It’s ferocious, it’s brutal, and it’s very pissed off.
1. Sanity is for the Passive – (12:40) – ★★★★☆
2. Reeling – (11:52) – ★★★★☆
3. Choked at the Roots – (19:48) – ★★★★★
1… which is an awful word in music criticism because it says absolutely nothing.