Somehow, over the course of the past year and a half or so, Los Angeles-based label Southern Lord have become a leading voice of crust punk and d-beat. I’m of course not overlooking the many DIY labels and bands that prefer to put their music out the underground way; after all, that’s been one of the key signposts of many crust punk bands. But Southern Lord put out so many of these records last year it was as if the label was trying to assert itself as a breeding ground for an upsurge in the genre: new releases from Wolfbrigade, Nuclear Death Terror, The Secret, From Ashes Rise, and Martyrdöd are just a few that come to my head at the moment. Clearly, the risk of oversaturation wasn’t on the minds of whoever decided to take on these great many LPs; though initially founded upon the subterranean, earth-rumbling drones of Sunn 0))), the Southern Lord imprint spent most of 2012 going for the visceral aspects of punk and metal. With black metal still the vogue in the critical community and doom having absolutely dominated the metal world in 2012, this kind of specialization worked wonders for the label, providing them a means to promote a swarm of new and old bands while also giving a necessary energy to an oft-overlooked genre.
With the new year now begun and the dread of apocalypse now behind us, Southern Lord has kicked things back into full gear by starting off 2013 with two crusty albums that carry on in the developing trend within the label: Wartorn’s Iconic Nightmare and Kromosom’s Live Forever. While both releases are the debut work by each respective band for the label, the latter serves as a collection of stuff previously released on various 12” and 7” EPs. Though each is a clear-cut case of a band preferring to keep things as crusty as possible, there’s a clear difference in methodology that separates Iconic Nightmare from Live Forever. These differing methodologies, while unique in their own right, result in starkly different degrees of success.
Wisconsin-bred Wartorn’s take on crust is as punishingly heavy as it gets. The guitar production on Iconic Nightmare is absolutely astounding; it’s the first thing to notice from the minute the record starts. Whether it’s doomy plodding (the title track), hardcore riffs (“No Sanctuary No Salvation”), or slight nods to post-metal (“Betrayal”), the guitar work absolutely pummels. (For a frame of reference, imagine the hammer on the sleeve art of Black Breath’s Sentence to Life is smashing your skull.) The rush of Iconic Nightmare is incredible, especially when played through high quality speakers—preferably ones that include “audiophile” in the description. I’ve developed pretty sensitive ears over the course of being an avowed metalhead, but I walked away from this record feeling as if I had just walked past a mortar being detonated.
What’s particularly great about Wartorn’s take on crust, however, is how well it blends it with an at times straightforward metal sensibility. Iconic Nightmare, if placed on a metal-to-crust continuum (assuming such a false dichotomy could ever be gauged), would edge slightly in the former camp. The production here is, compared to the grand scheme of all things crust, pretty clean, but that doesn’t make it any less authentic. The more abrasive elements of crust—the kind that make you feel as if your ears are being scraped out by a salty nail—aren’t the dominant sonic traits here. Viscerally put, Wartorn are the bruise left after a rib-cracking punch.
Kromosom, on the other hand, are the grating sharpness after being sliced at with a dull knife. Live Forever, a collection of songs from three different limited releases, could very well be one of the most hideous things ever put to CD. To anyone reading this who might be unfamiliar with crust punk, that’ll read as an insult; however, to crust and d-beat enthusiasts, it might just be the thing that puts Live Forever over Iconic Nightmare if one were forced to choose. Crust—and indeed punk in general—has long prided itself on possessing a certain ugliness, which has undoubtedly been integral in expressing the political themes often espoused by the genre’s practitioners. Kromosom’s sub-lo fi production value places them well within the crust tradition, embracing the hideous to drive the point home.
But historical and authentic though this rawness may be, it’s near unbearable to sit through, even through the meager 20 minutes that comprises Live Forever. Eleven seconds into opening track “DBH,” a shrill, intolerable hiss emits, which completely distracts from the already flat sonic quality of the band’s performance. The guitar and bass work are indiscernible from each other, and the drums sound as if they were recorded from ten feet away; the double bass runs that might have been effective had there been some more robust production value are left to mix in with the flat master of the record. This unwavering devotion to the nastiest of sounds makes one wonder if Kromosom view being hideous as a good in of itself, even when it comes at the expense of listenability. Rough sonic quality has undeniably been a part of crust’s history, and it’s not something to shrug off or gloss over with an overly neat production style that tries to iron out the “flaws” that are what really make the genre what it is in the first place. But at the same time, it’s hard to believe that the price to pay for authenticity is to be as unpleasant as the songs on Live Forever are.
Kromosom and Wartorn, while they present different takes on crust, aren’t necessarily at opposite ends of a spectrum, despite what a superficial listen of each record might lead one to believe. There’s an undeniable sense of fidelity to brutality that both bands align with, and each present a vision of a sonic that’s uniquely their own and beholden to the progenitors of the style they play in. That they end up in two strikingly different LPs is a testament to their own respective visions; however, it’s clear that one vision resounds more powerfully than the other. The sheer metallic heaviness of Iconic Nightmare may not sound as “genuine crust” as Kromosom do, but Wartorn don’t get so wrapped up in sounding authentic that they sacrifice any ability to engage with an album. A good crust record—hell, a good metal record—should make you feel like you’ve been bloodied, beaten, maybe even stabbed. But if those wounds lead to a nasty festering, someone’s probably doing something wrong.