If the For Carnation were decidedly quieter than Brian McMahon’s first band, Slint, they certainly didn’t lose any of their ferocity when they turned the knobs down. McMahon and a rotating cast around him (sometimes including fellow Slinter David Pajo) released only three albums in their short career: two EPs, Fight Songs and Marshmallows, and one self-titled full-length. But what they lacked in staying power, they more than made up for in consistency. They were unfortunately overlooked in their own time but here, on Promised Works, Touch and Go collect the first two EPs and give listeners another chance to appreciate the For Carnation for the brilliant and dense band that they were.
The first three songs on the disc make up Fight Songs; right out of the gate “Grace Beneath the Pines” establishes the band’s quiet intentions. The song is little more than McMahon on guitar and vocals, and his voice and the instrument seem to be in a contest to see which can sound the faintest. “Grace” might be the best example of the For Carnation’s biggest tool: tension. Every now and then, McMahon will come on with a hard strum, a moment where his voices gets louder, threatens to yell. With most bands, this would be the moment the drums would come in and the bass would thud and the rawk would begin. But McMahon instead goes right back to the light strums, the quiet voice; he lets the song settle, but it is by no means calm.
“Get and Stay Get March” has a similar approach. It is a full-band number, but the drums are softly struck. The notes McMahon plays on the guitar come so slow you wonder if he even knows he’s playing the guitar. The song has flourishes, where McMahon rides out a chord and the drums thump in time, but by now we know this isn’t a build-up to something else. But when it settles back into its barely-there flow, it isn’t disappointing at all. Instead, McMahon has us squinting, our ear to the speaker, trying to hear every deliberate quake, every tip-of-the-pick pluck. The music wraps itself around you, but the quiet doesn’t offer calm like you’d think, instead it swells in you and you realize your leg won’t stop twitching and you’re almost worried. Because the music sounds so fragile, but is so wrought with tension that it could all fall apart at any moment. And maybe that’s why we keep our ear to the speaker, why we bend over into it and ignore the ache in our back, because we want to see if it holds together.
And it does, somehow. If Fight Songs is a big, sturdy oak door (and it is dense enough to be) and “Grace Beneath the Pines” is facing out into the cold woods leaving “Get and Stay Get March” to watch over the empty hardwood of the house, then “How I Beat the Devil” is the door’s noisy hinge. It starts much like the other songs, with a deliberate, repeated guitar riff, until it breaks out into a full-on, up-tempo rock number. This is the loudest and fastest we ever hear the For Carnation, and setting it in between two songs that are so much longer and quieter only builds the tension more. It’s hard to think of another band who could pack so much into three songs.
Marshmallows is in some ways very much the same, as it relies on a similar tension, but the way the tension comes out is often more overt. “I Wear the Gold” sounds downright menacing, with McMahon’s quick-strummed guitar and chugging drums. Faint vocal melodies sound like a train in the distance, and the song stays instrumental as the band once again threatens to break loose but never does. It’s probably the most Slint moment on the record, with the loudest guitars on either EP.
The rest of Marshmallows, with the exception of “Salo”, is much quieter, perhaps quieter than Fight Songs. And you can hear the band building towards the sound they’d use on their equally excellent full length album. If there’s a weakness to be found in all of this, its probably in the lyrics. There aren’t lines here that will blow you away, or really even any you’ll remember after the disc ends. McMahon’s lyrics about “crackheads and assassins”, among other things, are far from awe-inspiring (except when in “Salo” he sings “She kicks but they hold her legs”).
Still, to get bogged down in the lyrics is to miss the point. The For Carnation spent their career pulling the string as tight as they could, all the while wondering if they pulled it tight enough, would it cease to make a sound when plucked? Could you put so much tension in the string that it would cease to vibrate? And is there a perfect moment, a tiny window where the string will be too tight to vibrate and still not snap? The For Carnation spent three releases finding that perfect moment, and one can only hope that, with the reissue of Promised Works, more people will be hunched over, ear to the speaker, waiting for the snapping sound that never comes, and loving every minute of it.