Here’s a self-incriminating recommendation: Listen to heavy music at the beach. With a hellscape of gargled yells in the headphones, the senses stay wide open—you’ll feel the breeze, and the act of roasting in the sun will gain a neat layer of morbid irony. But here’s a self-incriminating confession: Extreme metal and hardcore punk often leave me feeling like a faker. Because really all I want from purposefully ugly music is for it to smuggle prettiness within. Amid shrieks that could have come from a caged beast and bass lines as overpowering as raw garlic, there has to be something nice: delicate melodies, absorbing quietude, whispers of Fleetwood Mac. As noise can spice up the enjoyment of peace, peace can improve noise.
It’s been a good year to hear that principle implemented. Take, for example, the new album We Already Lost the World by the mysterious French trio Birds in Row. “Screamo” may be a dicey description to use—it’s too cute, culturally maligned, and early-2000s affiliated—but Birds in Row really do scream, and they really do pack a lot of emotion. Specifically, they convey deep grief charged with desperate hope—a feeling that makes poignant even the band’s most migraine-causing tantrums, and explains all the velvety instrumental passages nestled within them.
The single “15-38” carefully eases the listener from alt-rock malaise into satanic extremity. But to directly dunk into the deep end, try the album’s closer, “Fossils.” It starts with a violent spectacle of drum-pounding and throat-shredding but gradually alights on a sensation of surrender. Over haunted guitar spindles emerges a chilling, cleanly sung mantra: “The sea runs dry / We lose hope.” Whether the apocalypse referenced is ecological or metaphorical, the music reproduces the sense of inevitability that most people try to stave off in their lives—but that heavy music of all sorts thrives upon.
Birds in Row’s songs link gloomy-gorgeous grunge and hulk-smashing hardcore punk, but what’s more important is that they’re truly progressive: The tunes unfailingly move forward, maintaining a narrative, while beats and riffs get traded out like tires at a NASCAR race. Rather than use choruses, the songs typically turn on fleeting refrains that form, bring focus to the chaos, and then disappear. The lyrics mostly get lost in the din, but sometimes a line reaches out to smack the listener in the gut. “Love Is Political,” which amazes the ear by overloading a spry groove oddly reminiscent of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” offers this: “You’d better hold onto your love / The anger, the pain / The violence, the shame / It’s all so temporary.” A welcome reminder in 2018, no?
The cousin of Birds in Row’s punk restlessness is the questing sensibility of highbrow metal, notably championed for a few years now by the acclaimed San Francisco band Deafheaven. The singer George Clarke uses the hallowed technique of seeming to swallow his tongue, not so much screaming as gasping. The point is to convey one—and only one—sentiment: pain. Meanwhile, the mightily accomplished instrumentalists around him draw from across musical history—or at least from Pink Floyd, Metallica, My Bloody Valentine, and ’90s radio rock—to suggest how that pain can stem not only from loss but also from joy. On their fourth album, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, Deafheaven bravely tiptoe to the edge of schmaltz again and again in beautiful balancing acts that go on five, seven, or 12 minutes at a time.
The opener, “You Without End,” is basically an M83 song: whirling piano, dreamy slide guitars, female spoken word, and the sound of waves crashing. Screaming or no, it’s beach music, for sure. Song two, “Honeycomb,” starts harder, with strained wails and a churning cloud of guitars. Yet you might find yourself asking, Don’t those guitars sound a lot like The Cranberries? Later come two relatively short experiments in pure softness—the warm guitar bath of “Near” and the ’80s fantasy set piece “Night People”—that are good enough to prompt the question of why Clarke bothers to scream at all.
But the album’s odyssey of a centerpiece, “Glint,” helps explain it. To read the lyrics is to be baffled: “Imagining you growing older / Somehow more beautiful / Surrounded by your children,” Clarke screeches. It’s a touching sentiment—why render it so obscenely? The decision starts to make sense later in the song when Clarke pushes his declarations of fealty into gruesome metaphors about stitching together skin. His delivery, like much of his music, argues that there’s no divide between what hurts and what makes life worth living.
There’s a more gleeful take on that idea on Only Love, the bonkers new album by Detroit’s The Armed. Like their experimental hardcore-punk peers Birds in Row, they’re enigmatic about their backstory, and also like Birds in Row, they made the telling choice to accompany their noisemaking with balletic dancing in a music video. But unlike Birds in Row, the ruckus is less portentous than playful: Their second album creates the impression of a mosh pit at a carnival, or a building collapsing in glitter, or a sentient bot malfunctioning after its first ever mai tai.
The punishing sound at the heart of many of these songs—hummingbird-fast stammers of rhythm and screams—recalls Converge, the so-called mathcore pioneers whose guitarist produced Only Love. But elsewhere the music recalls pop and indie rock and “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Often, you’re left guessing whether you’re hearing guitar, keyboard, or kazoo.
The total effect is frenzied ecstasy. On the opening one-two onslaught of “Witness” and “Role Models,” for example, the band’s competing firehoses of sound eventually cross streams into one triumphant gush. There are poppier efforts too, like “Fortune’s Daughter,” a slice of death-disco on which the bassist Cara Drolshagen shouts dyspeptically but another vocalist answers with a smooth and catchy chorus. On “Nowhere to Be Found,” the escalatingly tense arrangement of stuttering drums, ghostly vocals, and saxophones suggest what Radiohead might sound like if they were a hardcore band.
The question all these bands invite: Why would music so aggressive, so strange, bother flirting with pop friendliness at all? The answer is in the title of The Armed’s album: Only Love, a statement of purpose that the group says it takes seriously. It’s in Birds in Row’s avowal that “Love Is Political,” and in Deafheaven’s insistence on bellowing about devotion. These bands know how the positive can enhance the negative, and how, more disconcertingly, the inverse is true as well.
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