Bleakness. Bankruptcy. Desolation. Ruined lands, burned dwellings, ash, soot and charred bones. Forced epiphanies, souls leaking from ruptured vessels and flashing away like vapor for dark frontiers unknown. This is the conceptual marketplace in which Portland’s The Body deal. Their brand of crushing-but-spacious doom metal reaches habitually for both the sacred and the profane. This is the stuff of the end times, with conceptual frameworks that are expansive enough to include the celestial, yet intimate and unsparing enough to remind us of our own hideous ignorance and perpetual failures.
For those who could stomach all the noise and despair, previous releases delivered on that ideal. 2010’s All the Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood was a breakthrough of sorts, blending stately choirs with abhorrent doom for a sort of southern gothic / apocalyptic atmosphere in line with the works of William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy. The Body have been busy ever since, collaborating with a slew of other bands while writing, recording and releasing at least one album (2014’s I Shall Die Here falls somewhere betwixt collaborative and solo) of their own material.
No One Deserves Happiness finds restless gun-toters Lee Buford and Chip King still experimenting relentlessly with texture, genre and concept. The results are interesting and often absorbing, but the album lacks the overriding sense of continuity and direction that might have made it truly timeless.
Happiness picks up almost where Waters left off, with female vocals, electronic elements and fractured, oblique song structures running rampant through The Body’s compositions. The heavy doom of Christs, Redeemers seems to have been dialed back considerably. On Happiness, the choir has been reduced to a pair of contributing voices, and the electronics have been tapped for work on “ ‘the grossest pop album of all time,’ ” with sounds reminiscent of “80s dance tracks.” This is according to an illuminating write-up accompanying the album’s Bandcamp stream.
But for those just listening (and reading the album title), Happiness might seem like a nihilistic statement – a big middle finger to mainstream metal and the encumbering ideas of melody and structure. However, a little reading and extended listening will reveal that The Body are definitely after something, something big. Well, do they grasp it this time around? There is no question that the band’s doom is soul-crushing and that their additional singers are haunting, but how well do the pieces combine – is the proper balance achieved?
Opener “Wanderings” begins with a spare, hi-hat driven beat. The lovely voice of Chrissy Wolpert sings “Go it alone” like a sacred mantra. Funny synth horns enter, then The Body come at you, playing unadulterated doom behind the whole thing. Then King starts screaming…
Have you ever played metal for a girl, and when the vocals come in, instead of recoiling in horror, she starts laughing and making dog howling noises? Happiness could be a candidate for that reaction. The wailing isn’t wildly different from other outings, but there is just less expression in it this time. One might even say that the wails are one-note, and come of like an afterthought – triggered like a sample, and lacking emotional and narrative content. This is a drag, and distracts from some the album’s best moments. Of course not everyone will feel this way, and some lucky listeners may simply be able to take the howling as it comes.
Vocal timbres aside, Happiness is often obtuse and confusing in terms of composition and structure. The aforementioned “Wanderings” just rides the collage more or less to the end. “Shelter is Illusory” is similarly vignette-like, with Maralie Armstrong’s soaring vocals creating a few moments of daylight in what would otherwise be a homogeneous, tom-thudding doom dirge.
It would take some time to learn every in and out of the album. However, some compositions stand out right away. “Two Snakes” could be the result of a Lex Luger / Liturgy collab, with big trap-rap kicks and chicking hi hats setting the stage for empyreanly-reverbed tremolo guitar, desperate howls and Wolpert’s judicious background vocals. Soon the snare hits become gunshots, secondary screams emerge and the singing becomes warped shrieking as the whole construction begins to gnash and twist violently.
“Adamah” uses a similar drum and guitar conceit, but dispenses with the screams, allowing Armstrong to sing uninterrupted, her powerful, post-disco style intermingling strangely but effectively with the seething avant-garde backdrop.
The latter tracks also provide striking moments, but do little to integrate the album. “The Fall and the Guilt,” is essentially a bleary, ominous ambient piece. “Prescience” begins with spoken word, before swelling with stately grace into an elegiac and affecting doom piece. Closer “The Myth Arc” is another semi-ambient construction, with Wolpert crooning sweetly and reassuringly in your ear, while King screams bloody murder from a smoldering hillside.
No One Deserves Happiness is an avant-garde feast. It is as if The Body have created a (wholly original) pastiche of ideas and sounds, but have only cribbed from (or coincided with) artists who have danced on the cutting edge – Godflesh, Liturgy, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Wolves in the Throne Room and Weakling all come to mind, for starters. However, Happiness does feel in some ways like an opportunity lost. With stronger unifying threads and an enshrined central vision for the sequencing and composition to march toward, these fearsome chimeras could have pulled a chariot all the way to the sun. As it is, the album is an engrossing but somewhat disjointed sampler of truly bold ideas and execution. The Body deserve our appreciation for that, at least.