[1 September 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Ever since Black Sabbath played that massive, genre-defining tritone on their first album nearly 40 years ago, metal music has constantly strived to not only sound as loud as possible, but come off as imposing and frightening as possible as well. As the genre has evolved, however, the creepy side of metal more often than not feels like shtick. While the mood can be eerie (Mayhem), the lyrics unflinching (Cannibal Corpse), the delivery convincing (Slayer), and the visuals arresting (Gorgoroth), it’s all scary in a fun but harmless, horror movie kind of way.
When a metal band does manage to tap into its collective, highly disturbed psyche and deliver a rare listening experience that’s as genuinely harrowing as it is visceral, we know straightwaway that we have something special on our hands. Eyehategod did so with 1996’s Dopesick. Godflesh pummeled us senseless on Streetcleaner. Portal reached new levels of sickness on last year’s Outre. And in 2008, Athens, Georgia sludge mainstays Harvey Milk have emerged from whatever rock they live under and coughed up an absolutely punishing album that would have people lining up to congratulate them if Harvey Milk didn’t happen to sound like the kind of folks you’d cross the street to avoid.
After various lineup changes and periods of inactivity, the band, previously best known for 1994’s startling My Love Is Higher than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be, returned with the well-received Special Wishes in 2006. Now, with one of extreme music’s most reputable record labels in Hydra Head behind them, Harvey Milk has easily topped their comeback album with a strange, convoluted album that’s as much a paean to rock ‘n’ roll as it is a glimpse through the eyes of some very deranged human beings.
All it takes is one listen to the opening track “Death Goes to the Winner” to realize just how much higher a level this band is operating on than the majority of their peers right now. Opening with a tender intro of clean chords, Creston Spiers might be singing about warm blankets and Santa Claus, but we sense something mighty imposing on the horizon, and indeed, 100 seconds in, the bottom falls out and the massive sludge riffs and floor tom beats kick in, Spiers’ voice now a disturbing roar, his melody mirroring the beastly chord sequence. It’s not until we hit the midway moment, though, that we get our first glimpse of the song’s true genius, as a tortured, feedback-laden guitar solo is underscored by relentless, primal beats and a single-chord riff. From out of nowhere, Spieres launches into a brilliant reading of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man”, tweaking the words just enough to make it his own, his psychotic, highly unstable delivery dwarfing Lou Reed’s comparatively cornball accent in the original: “Hey white boy / What you still doin’ around?...I’m waitin’ on my death.” Over a growing crescendo of distortion, Spiers suddenly dips into the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”, matter-of-factly singing, “Woke up, got out of bed, put a pistol to my head,” that famous, sustained piano chord struck now like a gunshot, bringing it all to a devastating end.
While the rest of Life…The Best Game in Town doesn’t top that astonishing seven and a half-minute epic, it doesn’t exactly let up, either. The great Bonham beat of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” plays a central role on the tar pit slog of “Decades”, as new member Joe Preston, formerly of Melvins and High on Fire and he of the hugest bass tone one will ever witness live, provides a thick bottom end to the rhythm section. “Motown” doesn’t exactly echo 1960s soul, but the song does see Harvey Milk exploring actual hooks and melodies more than ever, a rare glimpse of daylight on a very, very dark record. The cover of “We Destroy the Family” by LA punk legends Fear, while faithful, benefits immensely from the band’s more aggressive, monolithic approach. Acoustic guitar and piano carry the initial moments of “Roses” before reverting to riffs that dip into the catalogs of both Black Sabbath and Melvins, as the band toys with the power ballad formula before beating it to a bloody pulp. The blazing “Barn Burner” is pure Southern rock of the Skynyrd variety, which then leads into the lengthy closer “Good Bye Blues”, the riffs of the first half channeling the blues as well as Eyehategod’s Jimmy Bower, the latter half bursting into a Zeppelin-style jam led by a scorching solo by Spiers, before coming to a crushing climax of slow, sustained chords and cymbal crashes. And as if to prod listeners after such a draining 45 minutes (more of a middle finger than a wink), the Looney Tunes theme is tossed in as a darkly comic epilogue.
Along with spartan yet inspired art design that greatly enhances the whole mood of the music, bassist Stephen Tanner provides blunt, often hilarious liner notes (“Joe wrote the pretty parts, Paul wrote rockin parts, these were rejected riffs, I said fuck you – piece this shit together and write about why your glad to be alive you asshole – hence this beauty”), making Life…The Best Game in Town even more of a complete experience than we’d expected. It’s a grim journey, and often creepy as hell, but it’s by no means depressing. Mediocre music is depressing. This stuff is exhilarating.