Tallah Revive Those Familiar Nu-Metal Blues with 'Matriphagy'
Though marvelous at executing their musical ideas on Matriphagy, nu-metal's Tallah sacrifice creativity for fidelity.
2 October 2020
It takes a certain kind of tunnel vision in today's socio-cultural climate to write an album about someone killing their mother and then eating her afterward. But to set that kind of storyline to a nu-metal soundtrack straight out of the year 2000 speaks to a level of audacity that defies comprehension. To put it mildly, Tallah aren't interested in tiptoeing around contemporary sensibilities. One has to imagine that either obliviousness, calculation, or some combination thereof are behind the Eastern Pennsylvania-based outfit's decision to model themselves on an aesthetic that's been out of vogue for the better part of two decades. Any which way, though, no one can accuse Tallah of lacking a clear sense of vision, or the resolve to carry it out.
Barely 30 seconds into "No One Should Read This", the first complete song on the band's full-length debut Matriphagy, the Korn and Mudvayne influences blow the top off the music like a monstrous jack in the box, furious from being left for dead in the attic and busting out of its dusty padlocked trunk to—what else?—scream bloody murder. All the nu-metal hallmarks rear their intentionally ugly heads: the rapid-fire scat vocals, the downtuned riffs, the piledriving grooves that suddenly boil over into frantic blasts of chaos, the bottomless rage, etc. The obligatory DJ scratching follows soon thereafter, but the band appear to recreate these elements without a hint of irony. The precision is almost more unnerving than the horrific concept itself.
Drummer Max Portnoy (son of longtime Dream Theatre drumming icon Mike Portnoy) starts "No One Should Read This" in a hail of drums that summons the energy of a gathering tornado. Of course, Portnoy means to recapture the unhinged sensation that nu-metal giants Slipknot created with their 2001 track "People=Shit", which similarly kicked-off their album Iowa after a creepy mood-setting intro. Remarkably, Tallah sustain this energy over Matriphagy's entire 53-minute runtime. Even a passing glance at vocalist Justin Bonitz's ten-part YouTube series, where Bonitz explains the album's storyline in exhaustive detail, reveals that this is not a band that cheats its audience when it comes to effort.
If Bonitz can pour himself so thoroughly into talking about his work, one can only imagine how immersed in his imagination he got to realize the three characters who populate the story. The protagonist is his diabolically controlling, wheelchair-bound mother (named Tallah) who keeps him trapped inside their home so that he never even glimpses the outside world, and—yes—a bunny rabbit that may or may not be real but nevertheless represents a projection of the main character's fragmented self. Think Boo Radley meets I Dismember Mama meets Johnny Darko. The rest of the band matches Bonitz's dedication blow by blow, and together Tallah demonstrate a truly marvelous ability to execute their musical ideas.
In a sense, though, Tallah are almost too proficient at what they do. For one, the music's intensity percolates at such an all-out level the whole time that there's no room to build up from where Portnoy sets the bar right off the top. And while the attentiveness to detail here is impeccable—Matriphagy is nothing if not an ear-candy listening experience designed to keep you noticing more and more on repeat listens—at the end of the day, it's hard to tell this album apart from something that came out in 2001. If the intention here was to create a time machine, then Matriphagy certainly does its job. But was that the intention?
Bonitz, a vocalist who established himself as an instructional singer on YouTube, obviously possesses a keen ear for the nuances in other people's styles. It's easy to see why his How to Scream (10 Different Techniques) video has drawn close to three million views. Bonitz was also quite fond of the concept-album format even before he joined Tallah. But for all his imaginative flair, he approaches his parts as if he had written them to perform them in a Broadway musical. That's certainly admirable, but it's hard to locate the band's heart and soul in this music. If Bonitz has the potential to grow into a creative figure in the mold of Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell, then he and the band can't settle for playing the role of nu-metal's Greta Van Fleet.
These days, it's almost impossible to find music journalism that doesn't snicker at nu-metal's musical excesses or blanket the entire movement as misogynistic. It was the '90s answer to cock rock re-packaged for mostly white suburban jocks who weren't aware enough to understand that they were appropriating expressions from hip-hop. In his eight-part podcast series on Woodstock 99 titled Break Stuff, renowned journalist Steven Hyden calls it "reductionist" to blame Limp Bizkit for the violence and destruction that etched that festival's infamous place in history. Still, Hyden and his guests accept the analysis that nu-metal was somehow more sexist than other forms like classic rock or rap. Even Korn frontman Jonathan Davis towed the party line when he decried the genre's misogynist tendencies in an NME interview last year.
Never mind that, for all their macho posturing, Korn were often trying, if crudely, to expose the undercurrents of sexual violence. Sure, they tossed the word "faggot" around, but we don't hold it against, say, the Beastie Boys (who initially planned to title their debut album Don't Be a Faggot). If you choose to look past the oafishness, a song like Korn's "Faget" at least wore its sexual ambivalence right there on its sleeve. So much so that it could at least serve as a jumping point to understand why young males weaned on confusing social messages would harbor such hostility and dread towards traits they identified as feminine, both in themselves and in others.
In the bigger picture, as a kind of '90s blues music for disaffected youth, nu-metal at least gave a generation the permission and vocabulary to think about trauma, sexual abuse, and mental illness out in the open. With all that in mind, it's disingenuous—and, to borrow from Hyden, reductive—for the music media to now turn around and treat an entire movement like a trailer-park pariah. You could even argue that Tallah are the product of an open-ness that nu-metal helped foster: Bonitz, for one, toys with androgyny in his stage presentation. And, despite the backlash that Matriphagy's concept is bound to receive, there might be value in the way Bonitz and the band have turned the devouring-mother archetype on its head.
During the '90s, scores of musicians and filmmakers reveled in provocation. Matriphagy's bluntness begs the (still open) question of whether we're better off now versus then. Tallah's mistake, then, isn't a matter of taste—staking one's creative identity to an un-hip aesthetic can be a genius move or, at the very least, brave provided the artist means it. After all, are we to pretend that millions of people didn't buy those Korn records? Matriphagy's main drawback is that it doesn't show us whether Tallah actually love the style of music they play. If they do, then they're not especially discerning about it. Their comprehensive fluency with the nu-metal formula, while impressive, betrays an underlying sense that, for them, no one aspect of the genre stands out more than another.
If you love something, it seems unlikely that you wouldn't have preferences when it comes to that thing. With Matriphagy, the band squander an opportunity to resurrect the genre's most interesting and fertile elements. Tallah could have gone off the beaten path, taking inspiration from bands like Kittie, 6Gig, Taproot, Soulfly, System of a Down, Fear Factory, Incubus, etc. Tallah could have looked to the way those bands brought individual personality to the music. They could have put a fresh spin on an old style by nurturing their unique quirks, whatever those are. They could have updated the language of nu-metal so that it communicates in today's terms beyond just adding cosmetic touches of metalcore, another sub-genre that's already been done to death.
You have to wonder what a record label like Earache—which once shook the world releasing paradigm-shattering music by the likes of Morbid Angel, Napalm Death, Carcass, and Godflesh—sees in a band like Tallah, other than, perhaps, a chance to get ahead of the curve in anticipation of a revival trend that's likely due any day now. Tallah definitely put their all into their music—we absolutely cannot sell them short in that department—but they've sacrificed creativity for fidelity. And while Matriphagy is hardly short on entertainment value, the band's flair for theatricality and over-the-top emotionalism can only be endearing if you haven't already heard the slew of bands that came before them.
Like the mother-eating offspring the album derives its title from, Tallah have ingested their forebears and absorbed them into their own flesh. If you're simply looking to take a stroll down nu-metal memory lane, then Matriphagy does the trick, but it can only do so much when compared to the records that listeners of a certain age made memories with. By its own design, Matriphagy necessitates—and suffers from—that comparison.