Wetnurse: Not Just Weaned on Metal
Wetnurse's Curran Reynolds talks about growing up in the isolated Maine woods, recording with NYC mainstay Martin Bisi, and how his band expresses "love as well as angst".
The music of Manhattan-based band Wetnurse is so eclectic, and derived from so many disparate styles, that anyone who tries to pin down its sound will hear something completely different than the next person, depending solely on their own musical preference. A hardcore punk fan will hear the abrasiveness of Today Is the Day, the towering epic tones of Botch, and the jagged style of Unsane. Someone who tends to listen to indie rock will hear Sonic Youth, Helmet, and the Jesus Lizard. Metal enthusiasts, meanwhile, will hear distinct parallels to the unpredictable time signatures and mechanical riffs of Voivod, the more straightforward approach of Helmet, and even the odd hint of early Isis. Just by that description alone, you'd think that Wetnurse's kitchen-sink approach to extreme music would result in an ungodly mess, but upon hearing their assured 2004 self-titled debut and especially their extraordinary new album, Invisible City, the cohesiveness of it all is astounding.
By embracing elements from hardcore, indie, avant-garde, and metal, Wetnurse deftly skirts any classification, which couldn't be more fitting from a band based in New York City, a city which doesn't so much have a metal community than a genuine, voracious collective appetite for extreme music in any form. "New York City is full of so many different kinds of people. That's one thing, it doesn't feel like we have a scene here like we have in other towns," explains drummer Curran Reynolds. "We meet all sorts of people from all different places, and we meet them in different ways, and a lot of them end up coming to our shows, so it’s a really diverse mix of people who are there for different reasons, rather than another town where it might be like, 'This is the scene of bands, and I consider myself a part of this scene so I'm going to go to every show that ever happens.' It really doesn't feel that way."
Which suits Reynolds and his bandmates just fine, as every member incorporates his own eclectic musical sensibility into the mix. However, complementing that eclecticism is a sense of discipline that, according to Reynolds, is especially crucial to the success of Invisible City, something that could have only come from a group of musicians that have the amount of musical experience as Wetnurse does, and which in the hands of more audacious, young prodigies, would have completely derailed.
"We're not young people," Reynolds says. "I'm 31 -- some of the guys are older than me, some of the guys are younger, but we're not 21. We've been listening to music for so long, I've been playing drums since I was ten years old, and pretty obsessed with rock music in different forms since I was ten. I feel like we're all bringing a whole lifetime of influences to the band, and treating it as an open-ended kind of vehicle, never going into it saying, 'We want to be a punk band, rock band, crust band, grind band', nothing like that. Just loving music and trying to come up with stuff that we think is cool."
That openness to anything and everything, along with the skill to harness so many disparate sounds all at once, is the hallmark of Invisible City, which listeners can hear on all eight tracks, from "Not Your Choice" alternating from keenly melodic to tetchy spazz-core arrangements, to the psychotic, Mr. Bungle-esque "Sacred Peel", to the spellbinding, 11-minute "Slow Your Spell, Miss Hell", which somehow broods and rages at the same time. Compared to the maniacal pace of such young bands as Protest the Hero and the Faceless, the deliberate pace of Wetnurse highlights the unique generation gap we have in extreme music right now, something that will only grow as the current post-Internet generation continues to come of age.
Reynolds finds that difference fascinating. "I grew up in rural Maine, among other places, and at the time I was really diving into music, starting with drums, I was ten, 11 years old, and I just became obsessed with these bands. My experience out in the woods in Maine was isolating, and I would get my hands on whatever I could musically -- there was no Internet, of course. My first favorite band was Pink Floyd, followed probably by Metallica, followed probably by Jane's Addiction -- those were the bands that really had a hold over me when I was young. In my mind, those were underground bands. I didn't know anything deeper than that, because I had no access to anything deeper. I was maybe one of a handful of kids listening to that kind of stuff, so it was underground as far as my small world went.
"Nowadays, of course, a kid in rural Maine has access to every piece of culture that a kid in New York City has," he continues. "And that's such a huge difference. So being older, I think my relationship with music and bands must be different than a 21 year-old today. It was much more of a personal connection. I would listen to ...And Justice for All or Nothing's Shocking, I would listen to those tapes over and over again every night for six months. So is that an advantage or not an advantage? I don't know; it's just a different way of growing up with music."
Blood Ceremony, Blood Ceremony (Rise Above)
Part early '70s proto-doom, part Jethro Tull, part early Fleetwood Mac, Toronto band Blood Ceremony certainly lays it thicker than the comparatively more controlled Black Mountain, but its completely over-the-top style works, thanks in part to plenty of tremendous extended jams throughout its debut album. However, it's entrancing frontwoman Victoria Legrand who commands our attention, either through her Grace Slick-style phrasing or her frenzied flute solos, which are more Ron Burgundy than Ian Anderson.
Grails, Doomsayer's Holiday, (Temporary Residence)
Not surprisingly, the Portland, Oregon band is as eclectic as ever on its sixth album, but Doomsayer's Holiday sees Grails in peak form, delivering a multi-faceted opus with so many twists and turns that it's hard to believe it's only 38 minutes long. Alternating from the dirge-like blues of the title track, to the mesmerizing, East Indian-themed "Reincarnation Blues", to the spacious psychedelia of "Predestination Blues", it all projects a vibe similar to Ennio Morricone's experimental soundtracks of the early '70s, yet at the same time is perfectly capable of crushing listeners better than any straightforward metal band. Never for a second dull, a band like Pelican could learn a thing or two from these guys.
Intronaut, Prehistoricisms (Century Media)
In just a few short years, Intronaut has emerged as one of the most unique American metal bands, and its second full-length sees the quartet achieving an often astounding balance between the primal force of Neurosis and the sumptuous jazz tendencies of Cynic. The approach by guitarists Sacha Dunable and David Timnick is understated and tasteful while drummer Danny Walker is more expressive than he's ever sounded, but Intronaut's true ace card is bassist Joe Lester, who is given the freedom to lead the way with his adventurous, fluid, jazz/funk basslines. The best is saved for last, as the 16-minute "The Reptilian Brain" is as enthralling an epic as you'll ever come across this year.
While those of us born before 1980 look back on the days of underground tape trading, simple word of mouth, and doggedly hunting down albums and actually paying for them with the fondness of crotchety oldsters, and rolling our eyes at the staggering overnight success of the latest MySpace sensation du jour, what cannot be denied, according to Reynolds, is the pure, raw skill of the new generation of extreme musicians, which is only just starting to emerge. "One advantage that the kids now have, as far as playing music, is with the Internet you have access to videos of bands playing. The drummers of today are potentially really phenomenal players at a young age, and I think it helps having all this technology where you can watch videos of all your favorite players any time you want...the access to information is almost infinite at this point. Kids are getting way better way younger nowadays than we were growing up."
Wetnurse might be a relative unknown outside New York indie circles and the odd metal publication, but the band has a pretty significant feather in its cap, with the great Martin Bisi having produced both of its albums. A New York mainstay for years, Bisi has worked on such crucial albums as John Zorn's Archery, Material's Memory Serves, Sonic Youth's EVOL, Swans' The Great Annihilator, and Unsane's Total Destruction, and returning to record Invisible City with such an important figure was a massive thrill for Reynolds and his mates. "He's worked with so many legendary bands, that alone makes it really special," Reynolds quips. "On a personal level he's awesome as well. The recording experience itself was really unique because of his studio. Unlike any other one, it's based in an old converted factory building in Brooklyn, so the room that you track in is this cavernous basement room. Really high ceiling, lots of space. The floor is totally uneven, so as a drummer trying to set up your drum set, you literally have to walk around the room and find the flattest spot you possibly can to set up. It's not the standard studio, with right angles and stuff like that.
"I feel like he's a part of New York music history, big time. I'm proud to be a part of that legacy, that New York legacy. It was just really inspirational to be working with him. I think that this record is one of the last ones he's doing. I don't know if it’s going to be permanent, but he's going on hiatus for the time being. So if he doesn't go back to producing, then our record might have been the very last one that he did."
And you can hear the influence of Bisi and fellow New York veteran Alan Douches on the record, which boasts the kind of warm, enveloping, organic mix that we simply don't hear enough of these days, especially in metal, which has become more and more trigger-happy in recent years. "We recorded and mixed in analog. I think it makes it sound different than most other records," says Reynolds. "As a drummer, most drum performances that you hear on albums, especially metal and hardcore, are doctored up in some way, quantified so all the hits are shifted ever so slightly so they hit perfectly on the 16th notes, or the guy fucks up the chorus and he goes back and re-does it. And that makes for perfection, which is cool, but what I did is not like that at all, it was full-on takes from start to finish, and that's what you hear on the record. I think that brings a life to the album that is lacking in a lot of other heavy albums you hear."
If there's one song on Invisible City that leaps out to listeners most, it's the insanely catchy "Life at Stake", which starts off feeling like an abstract, Sonic Youth-inspired piece, slowly builds momentum à la "Teen Age Riot", and subsequently kicks into a ferocious four-on-the-floor groove, Reynold's percussion adding hints of dance as guitarists Greg Kramer and Garett Bussanick alternate between squalls of distortion and almost whimsical-sounding trills, as vocalist Gene Fowler howls away his indecipherable lyrics. As if to prove that they simply can, the band inexplicably inserts a dub-inspired section from out of nowhere, making for an unlikely, but ultimately very cool breakdown. And Reynolds fully agrees, if there's one defining moment to pinpoint, it's this song.
"On the self-titled there's a song called 'Rhetorical Questions', and there's a part in that song that we call 'the dub part', and it was a conscious effort back then to insert a dub part into one of our songs, it was something that reminded us of dub," he explains. "We just decided to try that again on this one, just one of those little connections we try to make. For that particular song, we went into it consciously trying to write a simple, timeless sort of anthem. Sometimes we'll set little goals with a song, like let’s write this, whatever it might be, and the final product might be nothing like that word that we used. But it's helpful as inspiration to us. I don't want to say we were trying to write a hit, a pop song, because it's not about commercial success, but it is about trying something new. A lot of the songs we were doing were complex or technical in some way, and we thought it'd be interesting to see what would happen if we took a different approach, if we embraced simplicity and embraced accessibility. I think we were all really, really happy with what came out of it."
Because it's an aggressive band fronted by an energetic African-American vocalist, Wetnurse has drawn comparisons to Oakland favorites Oxbow, but in actuality, Gene Fowler's approach is completely unique, not to mention difficult to pin down, as he screeches, howls, and roars all over the new album, his eccentric approach making him almost seem like an extreme metal variation of Malcolm Mooney. "Of all of us, Gene embraces spontaneity and excels at it in a way that none of the rest of us do," muses Reynolds. "Gene was born and raised in Manhattan, total hip-hop background: the music, dancing, graffiti, the whole nine yards. He was working at a restaurant with [Wetnurse's original guitarist Ian], and one night Ian gave Gene a bag of mushrooms and Today Is the Day's Willpower CD. Gene ate all the mushrooms, listened to the Willpower record all night long with his headphones, walking around the city, and it was a transformation. Right after that, he stepped up and he was like, 'Yeah, I think I'd like to sing for this new band you're starting," he laughs.
Reynolds adds, "He brings his dancing background to the live shows, to where he's very, very physical when he sings, and he punctuates all these different lines with movements. He's a real performer. It's not merely just anger, I just think he's expressing a whole range of stuff, as is the whole band. It's love as well as angst."
With an extensive tour during the entire month of October with Florida progressive metal band Khann planned, it's an extraordinarily busy time for the perpetually busy Reynolds, who works as the publicist for such noteworthy bands as Today Is the Day, Bloody Panda, and Graf Orlock, and curates the weekly Precious Metal series at Manhattan's Lit Lounge every Monday. And hearing Reynolds talk about the latter project, he sounds especially proud that he and Wetnurse aren't a product of a "scene" per se, instead the product of a city with a hunger for bold, new music, no matter what genre.
"The shows themselves are pretty diverse, where I'll have all different kinds of bands and acts that all loosely fit under an umbrella of heaviness," he enthuses. "I've had James Plotkin doing a solo laptop set, I've had A Life Once Lost play, so with those shows too it's the same thing -- every show is different. Depending on what bands I have, I'll see different people there. It's really exciting. There are some people who are more regular than others, but there's always different people coming in every week. Maybe that's just the nature of New York as well."