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Split Cranium

Split Cranium

(Hydra Head; US: 20 Mar 2012; UK: 26 Mar 2012)

Review [10.Jun.2012]

Split Cranium is a collision of avant-metal, experimental and heavy rockers whose sole desire is to create a bunch of obnoxious, rudimentary noise. The band features the talents of Jussi Lehtisalo (of Finnish eccentrics Circle, Pharaoh Overlord and Steel Mammoth), and Aaron Turner, famed for his work with Isis and a slew of other projects. You might presume Split Cranium would craft expansive post-something suites filled with arty metal flourishes. But you’d be wrong. The band’s self-titled debut is the antithesis of any such expectations, having naught to do with any highfalutin endeavors. Instead, Split Cranium delivers shambolic and searing blasts of crusty d-beat and grotty hardcore – think Agoraphobic Nosebleed entering into a depraved alliance with the Exploited and Finland’s own grindcore heroes, Rotten Sound. Turbo-paced, bespattered with grime and welcomingly anarchic, Split Cranium is 25 minutes of intense old school punk that stings like a fresh mouth ulcer and reeks of moldering, roach-infested practice spaces.

Given the history of those involved in Split Cranium, it’s somewhat surprising to find the album so steeped in a dog-on-a-string gutter-punk spirit. Lehtisalo’s main band, Circle, is prolific – 39 LPs,15 EPs and counting – and renowned for its progressive creativity. Never settling on one particular sound for too long, Circle has tried its hand at everything from Krautrock to post-punk, prog, and New Wave of Finnish Heavy Metal. The latter, a wonderfully overblown and muscular genre, is fostered by Lehtisalo’s Phantom Overlord and Steel Mammoth.

Turner has also indulged in similarly eclectic ventures. His work with seminal and sadly defunct post-metal titan Isis is much revered, but he is involved in a plethora of other intrepid projects. This includes his evocative, more minimalist work with Mamiffer, House of Low Culture, Jodis, the steely Grey Machine, and black metal luminary Twilight. Each act signals a different artistic direction for Turner, but all are bound by a similarly searching disposition. Of course, it’s not entirely unusual to find Turner or Lehtisalo turning up on such a raucous album. Both have peddled the heavier wares for many years, but the rawness of this venture is unexpected. Although, just to be perfectly clear, Split Cranium’s sonic filthiness is its finest feature. 

Split Cranium was formed from a yearning to let loose the spiky-collared riffola. Lehtisalo and Steel Mammoth cohort Jukka Kröger had initially intended to craft some free-noise improvisations, something more akin to Circle’s experimental fare. However, after a few days in the studio, they threw out that idea and decided to “get their fucking riff on”. An excellent decision it was too. Lehtisalo made a call to former touring partner Turner. (They’d previously discussed forming an “unstoppable Scandi-American justice league of maximum musical proportions.”) They then drafted in Samae Koskinen from Steel Mammoth, and the grubby quartet was born.

That craving to kick out the cruddiest of jams defines Split Cranium. It sounds, first and foremost, like the band’s members are focused on amusing themselves – seeing if they can obliterate a few amps along the way. “Little Brother” blazes out the gate first, all d-beat fury, distorting bass and guitars set to 11, and pounding percussion, with Turner’s gruff, hurricane-strength vocals howling atop. Brevity and ferocity are the key components to Split Cranium, with just eight tracks in 25 minutes. “Tiny Me” and “The Crevice Within” flash past in a giddy precipitate rush of stomping riffs before you run head first into the cadaverous “Blossoms from Boils”.

This track, a swaggering hunk of frosty noise-rock cut with stoner metal, works repetitive riffs, chanted vocals, squealing electronics and a motorik rhythm, offering a glimpse of Split Cranium’s secretive formula. The band seeks to escape the hirsute and husky sophistication of its members’ other outfits, but that innate predisposition to inject sharp-witted subtleties into their songs cannot be denied. “Black Binding Plague” works the New York feedbacking noisescapes hard, and “Yellow Mountain” is a Black Flag meets New Wave of Finnish Heavy Metal romp. Turner’s throat-shredding and clean vocals are layered throughout, adding a little avant-shine.

Intricacy and primitiveness converge on final track “Retrace the Circle”, making for a beautiful wreck of a tune. Riddled with hardcore hooks, recitative vocals and glazed, cyclical riffs, it all disintegrates into a maelstrom of white noise at the end of its eight-minute run. But that trance-like build-up – combining blast-beat percussion, Turner’s low-register yowls, and an increasingly distorted tenor – is pure maniacal showmanship. It’s the Spacemen 3/Motorhead collaboration you’ve always dreamed of.

Split Cranium suggests its debut is raw, visceral and uncomplicated punk rock, but there’s clearly more going on here than that. That’s not to imply the band has misled you in any way. It’s simply that its members are incapable of leaving behind their abundant grasp of nuance, even when churning out their most undeveloped work – and we’re hardly going to complain about that. Split Cranium is delivered at neck-snapping velocity – a no doubt glorious purge for artists whose work is so often bursting with complexity. If you’re inclined to treat it as nothing more than a simplistic chunk of careening crusty punk, you certainly won’t offend the band. But let’s not kid ourselves. For all its crudity, Split Cranium is smart. Music this good requires more than a few glue-ravaged brain cells to piece together.


Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.

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10 Jun 2012
On the surface, Split Cranium is just one in a tired tradition of crust punk bands, but before tossing this record in the trash, give it another listen. Far from parroting of subgenre clichés, Split Cranium affectionately reinterprets them through an artist's lens.
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