The early ’90s saw an eruption of significantly different sonic-threads as the underground music scene reached critical mass in the U.S. from coast-to-coast. A significant cluster of bands arose who merged high pace punk with raw feedback, atonality, and improvisation — and earned the genre tag “noise rock”. Here, in 2020, the musical boundaries have collapsed, meaning many bands are ping-ponging back-and-forth across the punk-metal-rock spectrum drawing on the wilder sub-genres of that 20th century moment. In this open-ended time, do the firebrands of yesteryear still have something to say? On their self-titled debut album, Human Impact — a gang of noise-rocks most talented veterans — return with significant swagger and the music to back it up.
Chris Spencer (vocalist/guitarist with Unsane), Jim Coleman (electronics/keyboards for Cop Shoot Cop), Phil Puleo (drummer for Cop Shoot Cop and Swans), and Chris Pravdica (bassist for Flux Information Sciences and Swans) unabashedly root themselves in New York City’s past as a rundown bankrupted ruin that inspired numerous sci-fi cinematic visions. At the same time, their concerns are lodged in the gullet of the here and now: medicalized reality, environmental degradation, social injustice, the desire of most decent individuals to try to negotiate some kind of clear path through it all — Spencer’s lyrics never back away from the harshness of the moment. In a nod to the Earth’s future, if our species does not change our path, the album cover is a glowing cityscape filling both ground and sky. It’s an urban totality symbolically rammed right through a planet reduced to an undifferentiated coal-black silhouette. Humanity uber alles and all else squeezed out.
If your COVID-19 response is all about spa music, meditation, and rainbow-colored thinking — don’t look to Human Impact, theirs is not a mental landscape evoking peace and tranquility. If, however, you want a sound that externalizes your frustration, fear, and concern, a sound that sets you free, then the album delivers in spades. “November” sets out the stall in fine fashion with the bass prowling caged animal circles, a wailing backdrop, drums that chivvy and elbow their way through the mix. The way Puleo can throw in numerous misdirects, swift changes, and twists into space where many drummers would simply be punching in a basic pattern of undifferentiated beats is a reminder of why he is one of the best drummers currently active in music.
There’s a fine line, when viewing the work of veterans, between tried/trusted versus having heard it all before. Human Impact steer well clear of the latter. While there’s certainly a nod to the excellence of each musician’s past endeavors, this isn’t just some side-project or self-congratulatory super-group so burdened with reputations that everyone rests on their laurels. “E605” is a case in point with its evoking of post-punk shade and echo, its lurches into intense passages that fill the sound-field edge-to-edge. Then a finale soars higher and higher on the kind of shrieking energy less adept bands bring in string quartets to supply. There’s not a loose, indulgent, or nostalgic note anywhere on that song or the album as a whole. They’re making a bid to be one of the most inspiring new bands of recent years, while their album is a front-runner for the 2020 highlights reel.
There’s no room for solos here, but each member of the band makes telling intervention after telling intervention across the record. Coleman has a deep proficiency, rooted in his extensive film work when it comes to effective electronic textures that draw one into a whorl of glitteringly detailed sound. That comes to the fore on “Consequences” whose introduction sounds like the orchestral accompaniment to a Hitchcock moment of horror, a finger on lip of a glass note that mutates into an electronic gurgle, sampled voices murmuring unintelligibly, computer and phone tones, and a killer tune at the heart of it all. Similarly, on “Respirator”, he makes hay with a John Carpenter-esque two-note keyboard phrase that frayed my nerves and tapped its way up-and-down my spine.
Spencer is in remarkable voice throughout, a controlled urgency suddenly leaping out of the overall hubbub of sound to drive home a thought, phrase, or pugnacious line. I always hate complimenting by comparison, but Spencer made me think of Steve Albini’s Big Black peak of sardonic fury, Zack De La Rocha’s incandescent rage, Ian Curtis’ despondent beauty. That he manages to put so much into the words and his delivery, while also handling guitar duties is impressive. Bass, meanwhile, is so often reduced to bumps in the backdrop of a song or the robotic algorithms of dance, but this is Chris Pravdica — the only guy ever to make Swans sound danceable.
Pravdica’s bass-lines are unmissable and form the steadfast rhythmic core of near every song here. His efforts slam “Protestor” in at the hottest, sweatiest end of the indie disco dancing on frantically swift feet. “Cause” sees Pravdica playing something close to ‘lead bass’ with a crunching riff that gives way to a guitar lead from Spencer that wouldn’t be wildly out of place on the gnarlier end of a Guns N’ Roses record.
Human Impact is a very lean album, every composition is compact, pared-back in length, with a focus on loading every minute with intrigue rather than elongating ideas to artificial lengths or blandly sequencing them one after another. “Relax” compresses the crunch of marching feet from “Holidays in the Sun”, the echoing vibe of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and the glitched screams of Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, into a mere 50 seconds. These guys seem to have ideas to spare when they can toss out so much, even in the album’s slimmest interlude. It also shows the intelligent sequencing at work with “Relax” providing a final drop in pressure before every dial slams into the red on “Unstable”, the album’s most punk moment. Then “This Dead Sea”, a recapitulation of Human Animal’s core strengths, delivers us breathlessly into the silent aftermath that always follows a blisteringly good listen.