The year is 2018 and guitar-driven music is once again in need of revitalization. A few years ago the 2010’s Emo Revival hit full swing, inspiring a new wave of pop-punk-but-this-time-it’s-dorky bands, twinkly math-rock depressed with the state of life in the American Midwest, and self-described loser-rock produced largely in suburban bedrooms and determined to self-destruct at all costs. Roughly a decade ago, when all of these sounds blew up they breathed new life into a musical medium that many had already declared dead. Now with the Emo Revival beginning to lose its steam, the realm of guitar music is once again due for new ideas. Enter: Chicago’s Slow Mass and their debut LP On Watch.
On Watch opens, after a brief intro, with the screech of guitar feedback and two dueling, distorted guitars laid over frenzied drumming courtesy of Josh Sparks (Standards – Into it. Over it.). It hits with the force of a car crash, sending the listener reeling before it retreats on cue to a subdued verse led by the soft crooning of bassist/vocalist Mercedes Webb. The transition is simultaneously drastic and effortless, somehow making what should be a jarring juxtaposition of sounds seem nuanced and natural.
Throughout the album, Slow Mass continue to hold these sounds and dynamics in contrast to one another, at times bordering on pure chaos and at times producing sounds that can’t be described as anything other than beautiful. On My Violent Years, a sparse acoustic arrangement suddenly flourishes with a myriad of woodwind instruments and ethereal vocal harmonies into a rising crescendo that never loses the gentleness of the piece as a whole. Three tracks later E.D. kicks down the door with its dissonant, frenetic brand of hardcore and lays waste to the room before handing the reigns over to the calm shuffling of The Author. Sometimes, like in the plodding Suburban Yellow, they move between both moods in the same song. In still other songs, like penultimate track Schemes, the instrumental and the lyrics seem to create different moods simultaneously. It is this masterful ability to create nuance out of something drastic and extreme that sets Slow Mass apart from their contemporaries. It is this very same ability that makes On Watch a clinic on album composition.
Lyrically, On Watch often leans into the Jeff Tweedy school of cryptic and somewhat obscure. Like Tweedy, however, it is apparent that the lyrics are rarely if ever meaningless, rather they seem to dance around the subject, perhaps giving the listener its general shape but never exposing it in clear terms. In this way deciphering what the songs are about becomes a bit like the old grade-school illustration of feeling an elephant with your eyes closed and trying to explain what you feel. For the ever-shifting, somewhat mysterious feel of the album as a whole this brand of lyricism works quite well, in part because though the lyrics may be cryptic they are not vague. The imagery on On Watchis often vivid, with lines like “a walled up border collie”, “spray painted scenester/ king of the bottom feeders”, “a newborn fib/ and a loser’s lisp”, and “you peel me off like dead skin.” In the few moments where Slow Mass give you something direct it is usually simple, but impactful, such as the central line in closing track G’s End: “All I’ve wanted to say/ is I hope you find peace today.”
Here in their lyricism Slow Mass once again showcase both the tension and the compatibility of extremes, creating a lyrical atmosphere where obtuse images are juxtaposed with direct, easily intelligible phrases such as: “There’s nothing like getting up before dawn to start wasting your life.” Alongside the ever-changing, constantly metamorphosizing music, the lyrics help create an album that seems to have it’s finger on something real, but intangible; everyday, but mysterious; pretty out there, but still grounded somewhere. It is the kind of album that is both mechanically innovative, but also emotive and thoughtful; an album that is unapologetically artsy without feeling overly self-indulgent. Perhaps it is exactly the kind of album that we need to jolt the guitar music world back to life.