The final album from the guitarless trio combined doom metal trappings with Mike Patton-style anything goes weirdness.
The Great Tyrant were a metal band that managed to sound crushingly heavy while eschewing some of the core tenets of heavy metal music. They took their time, slowly parsing out riffs and letting their songs soak in atmosphere dominated by distorted bass and keyboard noise. This is a trait they share with many doom metal bands, but the thing that made them truly unusual was their lack of guitar. There are definitely a few other bands in the metal genre that operate without the form’s signature instrument, but once you get beyond psychedelic speed noise thrashers Lightning Bolt that list gets very short very quickly.
I use the past tense because the Great Tyrant dissolved shortly before this album, The Trouble With Being Born, was completed. The unexpected death of bassist Tommy Wayne Atkins caused the two remaining members, keyboardist/vocalist Daron Beck and drummer Jon Teague, to retire their band name. The duo continue on today as Pinkish Black, but they’ve finally gone back to complete the record they started back in 2009. To fill out the partially completed second studio album, the band included earlier recordings from before their first album. Sonically and stylistically there’s very little difference between the two eras of the band, with one notable exception.
Being concerned with atmosphere and soundscapes, much of the material on The Trouble With Being Born finds The Great Tyrant letting their songs stretch, almost to the breaking point. Mostly this works because the atmosphere they create is compelling. Whether it’s a drum pattern, a bass riff, or Beck’s alternating moan/snarl of a voice, there’s something for the listener to hold onto. Often it’s an organ figure from Beck that really sells the song, but not always. The album’s longest track, “Handholder”, relies on the very doom metal technique of holding out notes for 15-20 seconds at a time, then completing the thought with a crashing unison chord change. This is the kind of thing that should get old, but the band creates a very effective drone here. Beck’s slow but gradually changing vocal notes and Teague’s nicely placed cymbal crashes and drum hits give the song enough variety that it never really flattens out and gets boring. “Recounting Scars” works on a similar level, with slow bass notes and scattered drum hits. But it swaps in a piano part that occasionally flirts with melodic passages and actual intelligible lyrics to give it a completely different feel. Not nearly as successful is “The Apple of Your Eye”, which opens with a simple but interesting bass riff that unfortunately never goes anywhere. Because the bass figure continues endlessly through the whole song the track quickly gets stuck in a holding pattern and the drone fails to captivate, despite Beck and Teague throwing in all sorts of minor variations.
The shorter songs here are interesting in different ways from the soundscape stuff. “The Trouble With Being Born” is the closest the band gets to a traditional metal song, with a heavy groove anchored by an upbeat drum figure and simple but active bassline. Beck snarls his way through the song, accompanying himself with organ sounds until throwing in a cool Moog-style synth solo two-thirds of the way through. The final 40 seconds of the song find him repeatedly shouting out the title as a sort of de facto chorus, and the band matches his energy level. “Softly, Everyone Dies” piles on the noise, as the bass, pipe organ, and drums all sync up rhythmically while Beck moans over that pulsing unison groove and Teague throws in fast snare drum fills. There’s just enough variety here between the vocals and the drum and organ flourishes to keep the song going, but it’s probably good that it stops before the five-minute mark. Closer “Weidorje” finds Beck using the unusual technique of mirroring his vocal melody on the piano. He keeps up that mirroring throughout the song, which gives the whole thing a strange kind of hook, making it markedly different from the rest of the album.
The most interesting tracks here might be “Take Care” and “Closing In”. The former starts off very slowly, with delicate single piano notes offsetting the throaty, even phlegmy vocals. But when it hits a second movement of sorts, the song shifts into a higher gear with fast and complicated drums as Beck’s vocals get more and more chaotic. The song feels like it’s winding down with a keyboard solo and gradually slowing drums, but it shifts again with the final 80 seconds, starting a totally different riff that brings the song to a satisfying close. “Closing In” opens the album on a completely ridiculous note, with Beck sort of wailing over feedback before Atkins brings in a bass riff. Teague quickly joins him, followed by Beck, using the most extreme pipe organ sound he can find. His chanted vocals include nuggets like “You wear your problems just like they were clothes” and “All your life you’ve been dead / Lying there in your bed.” Everything about “Closing In”, one of the earlier recordings, is over the top, bordering on silly, and it seems to indicate that the whole album will be jokey, but that turns out not to be the case.
The Trouble With Being Born is an album that is going to have a limited appeal, even to the metal listeners that Relapse Records caters to. But for those willing to dive in to the weirdness there is a lot of interesting and entertaining music to be found here. Fans of legendary vocalist Mike Patton’s weirder projects, from Mr. Bungle to Fantomas to his solo material, will definitely be in tune with what The Great Tyrant was playing.