Old Man Gloom is a supergroup. I realize that term is inevitably accompanied by the knowledge that disappointment is sure to follow, but with members from Isis, Cave In and Converge in its ranks, describing the band otherwise wouldn’t do it justice. However, you can rest assured that the avant-garde metal Old Man Gloom purveys is not tainted by inflated egos; quite the reverse. If anything, NO, the band’s latest album and the first since 2004’s Christmas, sees the “fame” of the band’s members deliberately obscured – crushed beneath mucilaginous metal and static-ridden noise.
Old Man Gloom contains noted fringe metal dwellers Aaron Turner (guitars/vocals), Nate Newtown (guitars/vocals), Santos Montano (drums) and Caleb Scofield (bass/vocals). Over the past dozen years the band has released a scattering of EPs and four full-lengths. All have been widely celebrated for their unorthodox mix of post-hardcore flavored metal and clamoring experimentalism. The band was on hiatus for eight years, but, earlier in 2012, Old Man Gloom emerged to play a series of shows, where its previously hinted-at new album was put on sale for fans in advance of its full release. Eight years is an excruciatingly long time without a release from Old Man Gloom, and the band has rewarded fans with its most compositionally adventurous album yet. Its distinctive slough was produced by the consistently laudable Kurt Ballou, whose work raises Old Man Gloom’s noisome vapors to choking levels.
The fathomless murk of “The Forking Path”, “To Carry the Flame” and “Regain/Rejoin” illustrates that time off has had no impact on the band’s patented blend of aggressive off-kilter assaults. Wailing walls of percussive noise and guitars, buried and clean vocals, and endless audible tremors lurk on the album’s more structured tracks – although any actual “structure” to be found among the chaos is barely contained. In one sense, NO harnesses the expected from Old Man Gloom – which does the anarchically assaulting very well – yet the band has not set out to simply repeat an already successful formula. Drone, ambient passages and fragmenting and splintering noise all play a far greater role in establishing the album’s overall harrowing timbre.
A pealing riff pulverizes the industrial, Stooges-like intro of “Common Species”. Yet, mid-song, laborious glazy-eyed doom appears, and Old Man Gloom discards any notion of a quieter moment to ease the tension – ramping up the eeriness with iniquitous delight. Similarly, “Crescent” could very well be a dulcet and stripped-back bucolic number, if not for the band smothering its folksy possibilities under waves of feedback. And “Rats”, initially borne along on a drifting cosmic pulse, is joined by a monastic distorted growl, before exploding into a cathartic churn.
Old Man Gloom’s decision to indulge in more minimalist pursuits is no measure of kindness or restraint. The glitch-fed, Hammer Horror-esque opener “Grand Inversion” is the only track on which ambient tones are isolated from the surrounding vortex. For the rest of the album, the use of echoing and rasping electronic eddies serves as an intrinsic component in establishing its brutishness. This is most apparent on the 14-minute closer, “Shuddering Earth”. The tweaked-out chant that opens the song is quickly exterminated by a jarring torrent of noise, but it’s the mid-song hiss and drone that lends an anxious tone – by the time it buzzes out, nerves are left raw and bleeding.
The dissonant crawl of NO is reminiscent of Tribes of Neurot’s incredible ’02 release, Adaptation and Survival (an immensely creepy album made entirely from modified insect noise) or, more recently, Sutekh Hexen’s blackened noise work, Larvae. Old Man Gloom nurtures that very same scuttling insectoid under-the-skin feel. Certainly, “To Carry the Flame” is a fine example of the disquiet that results from tackling subconscious unease.
Old Man Gloom has always intertwined bludgeoning weight with the prospect of emotional disintegration. NO takes that familiar sense of imminent crisis, and marries it to an even greater sense of dread. While the desire to instill trepidation is often defeated in metal by clumsy cliché, Old Man Gloom is far too astute to use tired old routines. It comes as no surprise to find that NO worms its way into your brain easily, picking at uncomfortable fears along the way. Old Man Gloom counterpoints moments of desolateness with raucousness, which makes for a wholly involving atmosphere throughout NO. Previous albums have all been battering and emotionally corrosive, but there is no distance with this one. There’s no looking on appreciatively; you’re right in there being buffeted, wounded and, all things going well, scarred. NO proves that eight long years of slumber have been fertile ground for Old Man Gloom’s ideas. Lord knows what the band might return with should it feel the need to overwinter again. As it is, NO is a fecund quagmire of alluvial sludge and wreckage – which, in Old Man Gloom terms, makes it another excellent release.