Labels are shackles. They fetter artists high in the arcs of their creative output. Crafting an oeuvre inevitably leaves an artist identifiable, and rare are those who successfully break from the restraints of their genre. Chicago’s Bongripper seemed to buck against the “Doom” label after openly owning it on the polished 2010 release Satan Worshipping Doom. That record was the culmination of several albums that served to refine the band’s dynamic sensibilities; these also afforded Bongripper the opportunity to tread the mire that is crafting an effective (read: not boring) Doom song. But 2011 saw them releasing Sex Tape / Snuff Film, a two-song think-piece that evoked the sludgy Death-Punk of Tragedy far more than the four minutes of familiar Doom it opened with.
Bongripper’s latest, Miserable, finds them wearing the chains of Doom like adornments to their armor. They are seasoned warriors, and Miserable is a statement of mastery; the band shows facility with the genre’s conventions and comfort transcending them. Indeed, Bongripper rival the greatest tone architects in Doom Metal, evoking the patient churning of grandmasters Sleep, and the explosive dramaturgy of Yob. On Miserable’s three tracks, the listener’s journey mirrors the three titles: “Endless”, “Descent,” “Into Ruin”. Opener “Endless” is lush sludge, methodically paced and culminating in a fury of noise and feedback. Only a few minutes in and it’s already deep head-banging country. Transitions are explosive, as “Descent” quickly declares the listener’s impending demise. The song is riff-heavy right away but is a show of patience too, as the band allows the song to morph like blood in a lava lamp: languid and dreadful.
Miserable’s sound is remarkable. Guitarist Dennis Pleckham is credited as the album’s producer (and, unusually, the mastering engineer) and his intimacy with the material is evident. One of the central challenges of heavy music is capturing the magnitude and power of each instrument’s unique tone while allowing the band to still sound like a band. It’s catching a swarm of decibels and turning it into sound honey. Daniel O’Connor’s drums are a particular achievement. From start to finish, there is a live sound that often eludes recordings of heavy bands, with the tendency to trigger every kick and tom hit proliferate across sub-genres.
But listen to the first hit a minute and half into the album’s epic closer, “Into Ruin”. It sounds like the toms are being clobbered with Macho Man’s flying elbow : straight from the top buckle, the force intensified by performance-enhancing drugs like steroids and gravity. “Boom” is the best word for the drum sound. Of equal power are the mountainous guitars of Pleckham and Nick Dellacroce, with a unified tone that chugs cleanly and fluidly, woven tightly from two points of origin. Ronald Petzke’s bass playing serves as a seamless spine to the other performances, rarely taking the foreground, but always providing a heavy core.
So much of what makes Miserable excellent lies in the production, but the band’s outstanding musicianship is equally responsible. This is a record that is filled with riffs yet so much about the atmosphere surrounding them. They turn a twenty-eight minute composition into the crux of a narrative through their patience and craft. “Into Ruin” synthesizes the tension-building opener and the memorably frightening middle track. The mood is one of slow decay, enhanced by a Black-Metal influenced devolution into chaos.
On the subject of Black Metal, Miserable is also an aesthetic victory for Bongripper, as the band have mercifully shifted away from their puerile take on shock value. Hippie Killer went the title of one album. Already discussed was Sex Tape / Snuff Film, which might be the working title of Thomas Piketty’s new book. Yawn. I have a vivid memory of being twelve, flipping through rows of CDs at a record store called Harmony House, and stopping cold at the abominable sight of Cannibal Corpse’s Tomb of the Mutilated . The artwork, depicting an act of putrescent zombie sodomy, may well have been so horrifying that it ruined me psychologically forever. Who knows—but that was shocking. Later I saw the cover of Mayhem’s Dawn of the Black Hearts, featuring a photo of a real-life shotgun suicide. There’s Anal Cunt. Dying Fetus. It turned out, even Cannibal Corpse could be out-abhorred. Hippie Killer was never going to cut it as shocking. The music does a fine job inducing despair on its own merits.
This is what makes Miserable such a success. There are few frills, not even vocals—a potential downfall to so many bands yet a strength for Bongripper. In its forward simplicity, Miserable could be misread as repetitive; it evades this reduction thanks to the album’s shamanic focus. Indeed, after each listen I was left with a consistent feeling of clarity. On Miserable, repetition is trance, the Dark Lord’s raga. The riffs are invocations. But the album is myriad: at times an onslaught, at others the eye of the hurricane.
“Endless descent into ruin.”