You know how, when you put a Hot Pocket in the microwave, it’ll erupt with palate-torching five cheese lava while a nougat of freezer-burned, rime-encrusted Helfrost continues to chill in its center? Well, as it happens, Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean, a pummeling blackened doom metal band coming out of Western Mass, are trying to do that to your skull.
Their latest release, The Vestige, is a double LP featuring all three of the band’s previous releases that have since gone out of print. It’s an “in case you missed it” collector’s compilation. Which means I’m not so much reviewing a record as l am an entire band, or at least a band’s entire discography. Fortunately, as it also happens, Chained aren’t hard to love.
The opening track, “Confusion Hath Fuck His Masterpiece” is a tone-setting barbell across the head. The guitar sounds are crunchy and brittle and sour, the tempo narcotically slow. Our intrepid anonymous vocalist shrieks
Calloused hands hold sword,
Paint their wrists red.
A scream from the tower,
The King’s head presented.
Light the flame of glory,
Burn bright our torch.
“Beware a fire is coming,
To melt away our chains.”
which is unquestionably sick, but also speaks to a wider theme throughout the record that I can only describe as ferociously anti-authoritarian, if not outright anarchistic.
In fact, when looking at the beautiful album art, which depicts chimerical lions’ heads, hilly castle-dotted backgrounds, and liches skewered with sabres, I’m reminded of two things: (a) the grotesquely baroque and demonic woodcuts of Renaissance grimoires; and (b) Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the “carnivalesque”. It’s a literary trope about upsetting hierarchy through temporarily permissible acts of profanity and boundary crossing, as in the mock crowning and de-crowning of a carnival king. Think Biblical jubilees, Catholic Carnival, the French Revolution, Devil’s Night, The Purge, and Ari Aster’s Midsommar all wrapped up in a looted, bloodstained bear rug. The vibe you take away is that, while Satan is fun, the guillotine is funner.
From the opener the next five tracks build on precedent. There’s little in the way of experimentation with this band but much in the way of pure, consummate riffcraft—which is really all you need for that sludgy, face-caving “mmm-mmm” goodness. Sometimes the simplicity of execution is its own aesthetic. All hail the fuzz pedal and the unresolved tritone, etc.
It’s important to note, however, that this record is not a cohesively written recording. These six songs alone constitute Chained’s first LP, Decay and Other Hopes Against Progress, which already earns my praise as a fantastic debut.
But, on first listen, the track to follow (the opener on a 2018 EP) presented such a turbulent shift in mood that it wiped me out as I was surfing the mudslide of amp worship. It is literally a cover of Devo’s “Gut Feeling”. Granted, it’s a surprisingly cool, albeit unrecognizable, rendition of an amazing song done, of course, in the mode of doom. In spite of its jarring position in the song order, I came to enjoy its adaptability to the genre. I especially like the tempo uptick in the final leg of the song, though more on its own doomy merits than in how it compares/contrasts with the original.
Here it should also be noted: from the sounds of Acid Bath and Harvey Milk echoing throughout this record to the band’s namesake originating in a song by sometimes tour-mates Thou, Chained wear their influences on their sleeve.
Anyway, this influence is demonstrated by the two cover songs on the tracklist, the second one being—I kid you not—Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Possess Your Heart” (which takes on a whole new meaning in the language of metal). And I have to give praise where praise is due, I never would have noticed that Death Cab’s creeping bassline is almost identical to the one in Eyehategod’s “Sisterfucker (Part 1)”, but here we are. These people know a good riff when they hear one.
The final half of this compilation may not build on itself with the same cohesion and pacing, but each song taken individually slaps like Christmas dinner. You have such highlights as in the end of “With Every Wrist Outstretched” when the lead singer dismally screams the words “piece by piece by piece” over and over again until it feels like they’re gutting your essence with a frigid ice cream scoop. Then there’s “And Every Sword Unsheathed” which dives into the blues scale and flirts with some always-welcome Sleep (Sleepy?) vibes. Meanwhile, “Out, Brief Candle” could very well act as the centerpiece of a studio album, what with its gorgeously suffocating crescendo and clean vocals that seem both mournfully environmentalist and mournfully personal.
I’m not a big fan of “Genesis of the Daffodil” as the closer, but I guess that’s the way the compilation cookie crumbles.
Like Pharaonic architects, Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean know how to construct a heavy song. And as with many in the metal world, they are a “serious” band. Yet they manage to remain stripped down and unpretentious, refusing to even list the names or aliases of their members, covering songs that they simply like that also happen to sound damn good in dropped D tuning, and generally sharing in the great equalizing glory of these crushing, monolithic sounds. As it says on their Bandcamp profile, “Send every God and King to the gallows.”
In spite of the album’s title, I hope these aren’t the band’s last vestiges and that we get to hear more material in the future. I give this record 4 unevenly cooked Hot Pockets.
(Post-script: So I was looking at the band’s merch and noticed they sell a long-sleeve [see the first apparel item in their Bandcamp] that literally depicts the exact same occult Renaissance woodcuts I was referring to above. Needless to say, that shirt got got.)