Lost in the Mix
Cancer Bats are a provocatively-named band from Toronto. They are usually classified as hardcore punk, but you wouldn’t know it from their fifth full-length album, Searching for Zero. This is not to say that the Bats aren’t loud or aggressive, but their music bears little resemblance to the fast, straightforward hardcore of yore, and is completely distinct from wild-eyed revivalism of bands like Trash Talk and Ceremony. Cancer Bats have a diversified sound, one that incorporates sludge metal and its hard rock and blues undertones, along with some metallicized cues from modern punk. The resulting milieu is generally solid, but does not distinguish itself the way it might have, had a few things been different.
Opener “Satellite” bursts from the gate with enticing aromatics. There are notes of Cave In in the spacy elements, hints of Converge in the angular riffage, and traces of good modern punk like Refused and Million Dead in the vocals and general energy of the song. However, the spectre that haunts Searching for Zero as a whole is immediately apparent as well: the mix. The sound is flat and distant, like Albini on an off day, and while it might bring back warm memories of Hard Volume, Face of Collapse or even In Utero, the mix is a poor fit for what Cancer Bats are playing here. Converge’s Kurt Ballou has set a standard for dangerous, jagged hardcore mixes, and it’s hard not to picture his approach – or something like it – greatly improving Searching for Zero’s impact.
The beginning of “True Zero” shows Cancer Bats at the closest to their “base sound” – if they have one – a sludgy punk ’n’ roll. “True Zero,” heavily viscous “Buds” and the other Nola-tinged tunes are generally well-written, and the Bats perform them with conviction and energy. However, here the mix rears its head again. Sludge is predicated on a bassy, basal thrum that makes palpable bodily impact. Even though the band do well with guitar tone and atmosphere, the one-size-fits-all dullness of the mix pushes everything back, robbing Cancer Bats’ genre-chameleonry of its true efficacy.
And yes, Cancer Bats are pretty genre-fluid at this point. Progressive stemwinding is clearly not the goal here; Cancer Bats are playing with Play-Doh, not blocks. Oddly, there is only one real punk rock rave-up on the album – “All Hail” – and even that kinda sounds like the opener off Eyehategod’s latest. Elsewhere, “Dusted” is a well-executed foray into menacing, almost psychedelic atmospherics, and closer “No More Bull Shit” shares glimpses of something majestic in its southern gothic lumberings.
Searching for Zero is a solid album, but the Hepatitis Bear in the room is the weak mix, which seems baffling in hindsight. Like an AIDS Wolf, it lurks near every part of the album and leaves the songs vulnerable to increased scrutiny, or worse, disinterest. Modern punks and sludge fans alike are used to their music hitting them with the force of a Gout Wildebeest, and without that sweet collision, Cancer Bats have a much harder sell to make. Searching for Zero is worth a listen based on its vitality and musical merit, but fans would be wise to keep their ears open for news of a remaster.