October is the cruelest month. This year, it's brought new releases from bands that have advanced the status of heavy, abrasive music both locally and nationally. These albums may actually be more kind than cruel, since they show listeners just how much talent exists in the metal, hardcore and noise-rock genres. I found a lot to like as I took them in.
Sinking Suns: Demo
Madison trio Sinking Suns channel noise-rock inspirations like the Jesus Lizard and Unsane in bare-bones fashion on these seven tracks. Drummer Gabe Johnson and bassist Dennis Ponozzo circle through ominous rhythms at different paces, creating a slow churn on "Tragedy and Sorrow" and a tornado on "Vicious World." This gives guitarist Scott Udee lots of empty space to work with. He squiggles through thorny, unnatural arpeggios on "Automata" and smears pentatonic leads over "Preacherman." Add Ponozzo's strained, tough-guy grumbles, and each composition is complete. This strong foundation will serve Sinking Suns even better if their songwriting becomes more distinctive.
Pig Destroyer: Book Burner
This Virginia group's interpretation of grindcore involves no grandeur or pretension, except for the occasional sample of a televangelist or some weird movie dialogue. One of these samples introduces "The Bug," a track from their new album. It's compelling, but not because Rip Torn promises to "dance over your dirty corpse." It's because of new drummer Adam Jarvis' snare and Scott Hull's filth-toned guitar, which join in a throttling rhythm. Hull flicks carefully through a sequence of notes, keeping the listener off balance just when a mindless drilling seems inevitable.
Still, don't go looking for overt surprises. Listen for what Hull's songwriting can do within the claustrophobic song structure and squalid atmosphere he's been honing since the late '90s. By that measure, Book Burner does what it should.
Neurosis: Honor Found in Decay
Neurosis drew on thrash and hardcore when it formed in the Bay Area in the 1980s. The group has since developed a variety of more sophisticated ways to shock and disturb. Around Steve Von Till and Scott Kelly's heavy guitars, the band builds weightless, stately strains of drone and melody. These sounds could come from synths or well-manipulated effects pedals, but their source is tricky to identify.
In the intimidating expanse the band's long, eclectic compositions create, there's usually something to grab on to. On 2007's Given to the Rising, it's the rattling vocal cries of "To the Wind." I'm having trouble finding it on Honor. Perhaps it's the triumphant, lumbering melody that resolves "My Heart for Deliverance," but the song wanders through several minutes of lukewarm guitars to get there. The one place I truly feel all the band's powers is on "All Is Found...In Time." Drummer Jason Roeder's drum intro is turbulent but not suffocating, hinting that the song could become harsh and heavy or contemplative and pretty. The next eight minutes are all of these things. Weighty chords return without warning, upending a serenely sad keyboard drone; the distortion then fades, making way for several minutes of quiet build.
Converge: All We Love We Leave Behind
This Massachusetts band's two previous albums, 2006's No Heroes and 2009's Axe to Fall, share a pattern: The first six tracks feel like a near-continuous suite, with feedback from Kurt Ballou's guitar pooling around them to form transitions. It's hard to enjoy the remaining tracks, because it's exhausting to hear their hybrid of hardcore, metal and noise at a faster clip. The band's new album spaces out the punishment judiciously. Short tracks offer brief jolts of adrenaline between songs that take more time to make their point, like "On My Shield" and "Coral Blue."
Jacob Bannon still reaches for big, adult themes with his athletic voice. The title track's lyrics note the sacrifices he's made to become a successful artist. Ben Koller's drums reconcile booming classic-rock toms with death-metal speed. His snare hits on "Sparrow's Fall" appropriately suggest the sound of something plummeting through a many-branched tree.
Ballou grows the most, though. He explores more of the fleet-fingered lead-guitar style that made Axe's opener, "Dark Horse," so stunning. On "Sadness Comes Home," he taps his fretboard with both hands, repeating a convoluted figure in the brief spaces between Bannon's screamed phrases.