Cutting loose as the band’s mastermind, vocalist and primary songwriter, Interpol drummer Sam Fogarino serves up a feral but often mottled animal as the frontman of EmptyMansions, a noise rock outfit bolstered by guitarist Duane Denison (Jesus Lizard, Tomahawk) and producer–musician Brandon Curtis (Cosmicide, Interpol), who, besides manning the mixing boards for the session, sings backup and plays bass.
Recorded in Athens, Ga., snakes/vultures/sulfate, the group’s southern gothic debut, is many things—and often to interesting effect. At turns splattering from the aggressive desert rock of Queens of the Stone Age to the gunky, free-associative oddness of Butthole Surfers, there’s also some Nirvana and Marilyn Manson in there, too. It’s the aural equivalent of a slasher movie, smearing layer after layer of drossy guitar lines, threatening vocals and hellacious creeks and bangs until, finally, a backwoods serial killer is certain to pop out at any moment. Drums are crass, weaponized—and you’re the victim. This is Saw: The Musical.
Opener “Led to Measure” paws with a sweaty and felonious air, like the house your Realtor is willing to give you for half price, so long as you don’t ask about its history. The leadoff bassline, stark with no accompaniment, sounds like a broken Atari pushing through a basement door. Huge, mid-tempo drums hit like an arsenal as noisy, gurgling guitars do their best to pop the lights and melt the wallpaper. Dental drill incidentals shriek and pan from speaker to speaker. “These walls have nothing good to say,” Fogarino deadpans, his voice doubled and chorused with poltergeist thickness. Make that 75 percent off, right, Mr. Realtor?
Though not for lack of trying, the album isn’t always so bang-on. “Sulfate” wheels with garage force and a double-take country turn, sounding aggro-happy in a deranged, Zoloft-addicted sort of way. True, with music so shattered, you’d think congruity would be of little concern, but the song’s split-personality construction is perhaps too unseemly for its own good. Also found wanting is “FTC,” which grinds with an ugly goth-glam energy but fails to gen up much else. There’s even a swampy, trudging cover of the Neil Young and Crazy Horse classic, “Down By the River,” which, despite being re-dressed in overwhelmingly loud and demonic clothes, doesn’t quite live up to its placement as the record’s climax.
This is, however, an exciting and risk-taking debut. “[The Former] You” wiggles with brilliant and crazed experimentation, while “Up in the Holler” proves the album’s bona fide slayer, grasping the jangle-menace of Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” and twisting it to a tweeter-breaking volume. Fogarino’s resigned, “drag you to Hell” delivery is mired in a sanguine orgy of guitar overdubs, effectively veiling his lyrics in favor of the way in which they’re sung. The effect is one of being tied up in the cellar and hearing the inarticulate threats of your killer upstairs. Will he come down and finish you off? Despite a few bloody-knife bobbles here and there, yes, he—and by extension, snakes/vultures/sulfate—most certainly will.