A pastoral drenched in feedback
Check out the press photograph for Brian Cook’s (Russian Circles, SUMAC) debut solo album, We Left a Note with an Apology, and you might be led to believe that the bassist is going in the direction of gentle, middle-of-the-road, rootsy heartland rock. The green pasture, the flannel, the Carhartt overalls—Cook looks like a good, mild-mannered Southern boy. But the image winds up looking somewhat humorous after one listens to the album and discovers that the music within is anything but conventional.
Cook came up with the concept behind We Left a Note with an Apology, released under the moniker Torment & Glory, after listening to an old copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska that was covered in dust, creating a wall of distortion atop the Boss’s stark, bitter blue-collar tales. People may never know what that nightmarish rendering of an already haunting album sounded like, but with this project, Cook gives people something that certainly sounds like a close approximation.
On the album, Cook synthesizes the rustic, down-home sounds of folksy singer-songwriter music with all the scuzz and catharsis of industrial—a pastoral drenched in feedback. This creates some interesting tension between the intimacy of singer-songwriter conventions and industrial’s characteristic sense of distance and anonymity. These are two extremes, and Cook balances them skillfully.
Delicate acoustic guitars and nakedly personal lyrics are the main sources behind this album’s feeling of intimacy and warmth. The crackly, lo-fi fingerpicking that kicks off the lead single “No Big Crime” could pass for something off an old Mississippi John Hurt record, as could the track’s humble melody and Cook’s quiet, unathletic vocals. His lyrics on this cut are even rawer, filled with imagery of a troubled youth spent shoplifting alcohol and smoking cigarettes on “the rooftops of academic halls.” But when he unleashes a torrent of feedback halfway through the track, it becomes apparent that Cook refuses to stay confined to earthy singer-songwriter usages, instead opting for an industrial-tinged sound that’s difficult to pigeonhole.
There’s a similar effect on the opening track, “The Burning Car,” which features a slick, Stonesey guitar line buttressed by an undercurrent of swirling feedback. By the three-minute mark, the feedback completely takes over. It’s as corrosive and caterwauling as any other burst of sheer noise, only much grander, and warmer too—it’s sweeping and epic (almost like a string overture) and somehow strengthens the guitar’s evocation of a rural American landscape, rather than undercutting it. It’s kind of like an Aaron Copland piece if he got really into Sonic Youth.
“The Kick Drum” is another standout cut, boasting the strongest hook on the entire project in the form of a stomping, singalong chorus augmented by a bellowing, distorted synth bass. The subsequent track, “Mexican Hat, Utah,” contains one of the album’s weaker vocal melodies, but Cook more than makes up for it with an especially gorgeous fingerpicking pattern and highly detailed lyrics about otherwise mundane observations, like how the Utah sunlight shines on blacktop. The record ends with “All Men Forever,” which could very well be a menacing Nine Inch Nails track until a swelling, jubilant melody finally pierces through the sludge to cap off the record.
On We Left a Note with an Apology, Cook marries gentle singer-songwriter music with the sonic barrage of industrial, and he does so seamlessly. Because of how cleanly he combines the two, this is an album worth checking out whether you’re a fan of both genres or just one of them. Cook described the project as a way of “atoning for some of the more aimless acts of rebellion [he] dabbled in during [his] young adult years,” and atone he did. All it took was some maturing and a whole lot of feedback.