On the surface, Split Cranium is just one in a tired tradition of crust punk and grindcore bands — heavy hardcore punk with heavy metal riffs and guttural, thrashy vocals. Despite these subgenres’ worthwhile pioneers, they are rightly associated with sexually frustrated teenage boys in ill-fitting black t-shirts. On the surface, Split Cranium begs to be binned. Even the band’s name is a crusty cliché.
But before tossing this record in the trash, give it another listen. There’s more here than meets the ear. Split Cranium features Aaron Turner (Isis) and Jussi Lehtisalo (Circle, Pharaoh Overlord), hardly immature artists wanting for creativity. They are both known for their genre-defying metal, incorporating elements of hardcore punk, psychedelic rock, Krautrock, drone, noise, and ambient techno in their many past and present projects. And indeed, a close listen to Split Cranium’s new self-titled record reveals that, far from parroting of subgenre clichés, it reinterprets them through an artist’s lens.
The first few tracks are the most straightforward, which won’t temper the polarizing effect the album is likely to have on d-beat friends and foe. Nevertheless, the songs are fun and well written. “Little Brother” features a classic hardcore power-chord riff that stops and starts at all the right places, scraping deliciously into place. “Tiny Me” is similar but offers the first hint of the album’s berth, with semi-melodic vocals joining the ranting roar on the chorus. These backup vocals are even clearer on “The Crevice Within,” which follows. Scarcely a minute long, the song races ahead of itself, barely holding together — in a good way.
That’s where things really start to get interesting. “Blossoms from Boils”, the first song to top two minutes (in fact, it tops four), lands in a grooving mid-tempo breakdown featuring a searing guitar lick and eventually, low, resonant chanting. A scraping sheet of corrosive noise opens “Sceptres to Rust”, answered by a muscular punk-metal riff. In a striking parallel, the crust vocals are answered once again by their quietly melodic foil. Well-placed delay on certain vocals adds interesting contours to the songwriting without calling attention to itself.
Following this, “Black Blinding Plague” starts with a full minute of shrill, chirping sounds of a guitar pick fiddling with strings over some hot pickups, while a thin layer of feedback hums along. When the song starts, Split Cranium surprises us again, this time with a string-bending lead guitar wail played low against the rhythm guitar riff, the whine swelling to a pseudo-solo at the song’s close. Meanwhile, the melodic vocals in “Yellow Mountain” almost drone despite their tune.
Closing the album is the relatively epic eight-minute “Retrace the Circle”, with slow chanted vocals juxtaposed against the racing d-beat. As the song goes on, the band wraps it in one layer of noise after another, the testosterone-driven rage sinking into a droning psychedelic tide.
The artiness of the album doesn’t get out of hand, though. Fans of grindcore and crust punk couldn’t ask for a more satisfying iteration of the style. The record may be smart, even quietly meta, but Turner and Lehtisalo’s genuine love of metal and punk shines through. With track names like “Blossoms from Boils” and “Black Blinding Plague”, not to mention the band’s name itself, Split Cranium wallow in crust clichés not out of irony, and certainly not out of creative deficit, but rather out of affection. I get the sense that Split Cranium is the effort of these seasoned musicians to return to their roots, to revisit their humble beginnings, a teenage fury and release in metal and punk, in their simplest, fastest, loudest form.
Many people react to the metal vocal style that adorns this album like vampires react to sunlight — they throw up their hands for protection and bolt in the other direction as fast as they can. If that’s you, I’m not going to try to talk you out of it. I doubt it would even be possible. But if you can tolerate it at all, it’s worth bearing through here. Split Cranium has a lot to offer artistically and intellectually, but more importantly, it’s just damn fun.