Saturday, 22 January 2011

Viva Death - Curse The Darkness

Viva Death, supergroup or side project, or both? The question was finally answered in 2010. The outfit consisted of Chris Shiflett (Foo Fighters), Trever Keith (Face To Face, Legion Of Doom), and Scott Shiflett (Face To Face) providing a triple baritone guitar attack, with the latter two providing vocals, Chad Blinman (Legion Of Doom) providing weird sounds and clips, and Josh Freese (almost every band you can think of) providing drums. This setup produced two albums in between the members’ various other bands’ schedules, a self-titled, brutal angle-grinder of a record in 2002 in which Keith handled the majority of the vocals, and a more diverse release four years later called One Percent Panic which threw in patches of sparse sound and upbeat vibes into what was still a very aggressive record on the whole, with Scott Shiflett’s more subdued vocals taking the reins on all but a couple of songs. The release of Curse The Darkness was driven almost entirely by Scott Shiflett, who played almost all the instruments and performed almost all of the vocals. Only a couple of guest musicians and Blinman’s return as random sound man take any other credit for what comes out of the speakers, as other three members are nowhere to be seen.

Has the question for best album of 2010 been answered? For the majority, this is unlikely. Admittedly having not felt a compulsion to check out too much in the way of new releases for the past couple of years, there isn’t much choice in my mind. The only competition for this personal accolade comes from Leatherface’s long-overdue The Stormy PetrelPhase 2, the sophomore full length by the insane psychedelic Alabama surfmeisters in Daikaiju, and The Bouncing Souls' Ghosts On The Boardwalk, which doesn't really count because all the songs were released on singles the year before. Curse The Darkness takes the biscuit, perhaps more for adventurousness than cohesiveness. The baritone guitars only rule is gone, along with some of the other hallmarks of the Viva Death sound, although this album is still distinctively a Viva Death album.

“The Life You Save (May Be Your Own)” starts off with a languid riff that’s possibly the dullest on the album, which soon gives way to a more familiar-sounding verse with a sneering guitar. The power of the studio allows Shiflett to duet his vocals for many an eerie chorus throughout the album, but here the call and response verses are performed with a guest (Charlie Ellis from little brother Chris’ own side project). The anaesthetic riff comes back, but is suddenly crushed under the heavy metal boot of an unexpected guitar solo that’s about as unpredictable as they come. It stops almost as soon as it starts to give way to some more standard riffs and crashing drums, and layered, spaced out vocals. Nothing much new for the second half of the track, but it’s given us a taster of the variety in the record. Blinman’s first noticeable appearance at the beginning of “Impact” is the first hint of the sound man’s increased prominence on Curse The Darkness. “Impact” is much more aggressive on the whole, and although it has less variation, the echoing chorus gives the song a bit of a creepy edge to complement the monotonous verses.

An evil sort of surf guitar opens up “Bullets Under Mind Control”, and the driving beat, the layered guitars, and just about everything else fits into place very neatly to create a cool, slick track. The fluid dynamics are in themselves quite unusual, but they’re quite welcome. They’re also a precursor to a bit of a headache on the next track. A guest musician on the tabla instead of regular percussion, understated echoing guitars, and droning layered vocals make “Love Lust Trust” sound like some sort of futuristic robotic Bollywood. A lot of Blinman work signals the end of the song, which segues into the more sudden “Everything’s Tic-Toc”. Some light harmonics over the returning drums indicate the slightly more upbeat nature of the song, but also disguises the style, as although the guitars are quite low in the mix here in favour of a more flexible vocal performance, the song has a fairly straight rock feel to it. Catchy is one label that doesn’t really belong on this album, but it gets pretty close here. An off-kilter end sees a fadeout from a gloomy little guitar into some static-laden sound clips, which then fades into a truly weird extra sound clip mix. A cheery old school female la-la-la taps along in the background whilst a monotonous man tells the listener “you will grow up someday, you will get a job, you will be… working”.

Following this disjointing affair comes the nasty “Villain”, which doesn’t have a nice note in it. Given the topic, it’s not all that surprising, and completes the comedown from the previous track. Again, the track fades into static and Blinman, and the more urgent “Freeze” comes in next. Fairly flat verses give way to another one of these choruses that flirt with both catchiness and a haunting nature. A change in the guitar leads to another one of these metal solos, although this one lasts longer and is followed up by a neat new rhythm guitar. A few vocal lines garnish this different section before a return to the choral refrain comes back, before two minutes of guitar soloing are gradually faded into the background of what could have been a great song to introduce someone to the album with but for its length. “Talking Backwards” is another completely alien track with the listener’s sanity in its sights, and judging from the opening sound clip from Blinman’s library, they know it. Tribal drumming, bland whispering, and guest vocalist Monica Richards’ starkly contrasting vocals in the chorus will make you cross-eyed, and only a lazy soloing guitar gives the song any break from this. An extra little instrumental piece attached to the end of the song is quite light and airy, with voices and sounds from black and white television strewn across its minute length.

Some palm muting and a low-soaring chorus bring us back to the familiar upbeat-but-not sound on “Out Of Reach”. It doesn’t do anything spectacular, although the plodding guitar solo has a hint of country to it. A long feedback sequence segues into the next track, which begins with more palm muting. “In Search Of Space Boy” starts unnoticeably enough, but has a heck of a lot more hidden up its sleeve. The guitars roar into life, bringing the song into life with it, and the chorus lifts and cruises. After a couple of these, a descending riff takes the song into another gear, and then an ascending riff takes it even further, right up to a simple but catchy and well placed guitar solo at the other end. The outro takes about a minute too long to fade out, which is the main drawback of a great song that not only breathes life into the record again after a couple of tracks that were beginning to hint at an album running out of steam, but is a highlight of the album.

“It’s Like This” brings some swirling guitars to the mix and almost a new wave pop vibe to it, exacerbated by the heavily layered crooning. Other than a drowsy lead guitar towards the end of the track, it’s rather nondescript, but it works well as a pace changer. “Wisdom” provides the obligatory swift kick to the nuts, coming from the same vein of aggression as “Villain”. There’s even a hint of Iron Maiden’s “Wratchchild” in the solo break here, as an antireligious tirade commonplace in the Viva Death catalogue is delivered. Another too-long fadeout follows with what is probably the last of Blinman’s crazy concoction of sounds, as “Crutch” is one of those percussion-free acoustic ballad clich├ęs that so many hard rock acts seem to put at the end of a record. One of the key differences is that Viva Death have taken so many twists and turns on their already experimental sound that this song doesn’t sound even remotely out of place. With the guitars layered, and the vocals layered, and after the last twelve tracks, it takes a while for you to realise that this is actually one of those acoustic tracks, and by that time you can’t even roll your eyes into a headache of despair, because the song’s actually quite good. It’s likely not until the ahhs after the first verse that you cotton on. It’s a bit of a sad ending, but it’s also nice to be put down gently after listening through the record.

Over an hour long and quite gruelling for the most part (and exhaustingly confusing in the other parts), Curse The Darkness is more of a marathon than a sprint. The effects are laid on heavier than ever, which will frustrate some, but the new shapes thrown in have made it vaguely accessible to a slightly different audience. A little. I say that because Viva Death are not very accessible to the majority of music fans. Of course, none of this will be played live, and with all the members currently involved in side projects, it’s not even that likely that another Viva Death record will be made. Curse The Darkness doesn’t have a dozen or so decent tracks up its sleeve, which is something The Stormy Petrel is much closer to, but it is an intense long-distance rollercoaster that I’d recommend to fans of punk and/or hard rock that are looking for something different, or looking for evidence that 2010 wasn't a complete waste of time.

Personal picks: Bullets Under Mind Control, Freeze, Crutch, In Search Of Space Boy
Picks for others: In Search Of Space Boy, Bullets Under Mind Control, Everything’s Tic-Toc
Relative weaknesses: Love Lust Trust, Talking Backwards

Tracklist
01 – The Life You Save (May Be Your Own)
02 – Impact
03 – Bullets Under Mind Control
04 – Love Lust Trust
05 – Everything’s Tic-Toc
06 – Villain
07 – Freeze
08 – Talking Backwards
09 – Out Of Reach
10 – In Search Of Space Boy
11 – It’s Like This
12 – Wisdom
13 – Crutch

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