Bongripper - Miserable

In its forward simplicity, Miserable could be misread as repetitive; it evades this reduction thanks to the album’s shamanic focus.

Additional Info

8.6

ALBUM: Miserable

ARTIST: Bongripper

2014

Alternative

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.”

1. Endless
We are introduced to this album in harmonious and tense feedback, either from delay pedals or e-bows, but either way it is a fine backdrop for the unfathomably heavy churn of those guitars. It’s also a particular pleasure, a minute and a half into the record, after mounting pressures, to hear those drums and the muscle behind them. When the central riff unfurls itself, the band truly begins to find a groove, which we get to ride for free. Bongripper keep the listener tethered to that central riff, chugging and chopping it up. They allow momentum to build between minutes eight and ten, and when the guitar thunders in from the atmosphere it’s a relief. The song culminates in a fury, perhaps a move the band relies upon too frequently in their catalog; but their choices within that framework remain chaotically pure sounding noise. Are those hints of vocals at the end there? If so, they’re gone, man. Howls in an abyss.8.4
2. Descent
This track opens with a Death Metal take on a Kyuss riff. Immediately the listener is dragged into a world that is somehow much more ominous and demonic than its predecessor. The lurches go slower and pull harder in this song. We hear how central the percussion is to this band, filling the space around and behind the guitars. This allows them to truly work at a pace that entrances. One need not be a stoner to appreciate the highs and lows, the dynamic and emotional range of a band like Bongripper thanks to tracks like “Descent” that offer so many hooks and riffs. Inversing the trend, the song ends with three and half minutes of uneasy atmospheric calm. Deft control of delay-pedal guitar swells and mangled hints of what sound like piano strokes add elements of harmony, but this doesn’t exactly calm the waters. At this point we’ve been bombarded with nearly thirty minutes of sweet noise—quiet just doesn’t feel right. But this song does.8.7
3. Into Ruin
The album’s closer contains many movements, from a slow-burning head-banger, until five minutes in, when the surging guitars carve out an incisive riff. Diagramming the riffage, the highs and lows, is rather pointless. Instead it should be noted Bongripper pulled off an effective thirty-minute opus that nods to the aforementioned Doom gods, but also to tweener bands like Isis and Explosions in the Sky, who themselves create soundscapes with the swell of a volume knob. The breadth of this composition truly allows the band to expand its territory in the world of extreme music. On the album as a whole I’ve heard nods to numerous sub-genres, but the record never feels as if it’s anything but itself: a mountain. This song is no different. The track ebbs and flows, but the pulse still beats throughout. The heads still nod. Hail Seitan.8.7
Written by Ethan Milner
Ethan Milner is a writer, musician, and counselor in Eugene, Oregon. His writing on music can be found in the archives of MotorCityRocks.com, and his poetry has been published in numerous journals, most recently Eunoia Review.

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