As adult projects go, Bully Mammoth is as worthy as any. Their new LP, titled Let It Bully, is antisocial, stubbornly repetitive, and lacks immediate payoff. But the same could be said about gardening, studying for the bar, or running a meme farm. And those are great projects too.
Now four years down, the Portland noiserock trio still make burly, lumbering, viscerally loud music. On Let It Bully, they’re as huge-sounding as the name suggests, but the base pleasures of rock music doesn’t seem to tempt them.
The restraint is appreciated. This tense, dense, sweaty album gives us 10 lengthy, tortuous tracks, rarely seeking release or resolve and virtually never slipping into a standard 4/4 beat. Opener “Eyelid Flex” lets the band fling all its limbs at once, offering a ridiculous showcase by octopodal drummer Derek Gierhan over five minutes of snaking, angular post-rock. Like “Eyelid Flex,” most songs build from brawny, repetitious riffs, which the band bend and pummel into various other ideas. Sometimes, Bully Mammoth offer no real reward — just a “dumb” riff done to death. On the dizzying “League Pass,” it can sound like someone drunkenly trying to twist a shovel into the earth by its handle in the middle of the night.
But patience is rewarded elsewhere. You’ll recognize the gleaming sharp guitars shooting over the din in “Gold Plated” as a glorious conceit designed by ‘90s post-punk artists and later deployed ad nauseam by bands like the Foo Fighters. The meditative “Lifters” both chills and complexifies the album’s otherwise pulverizing energy, the band simmering on a lovely, eminently listenable post-rock meditation like something out of Blonde Redhead or Rodan.
Balanced at track seven, “Lifters” redirects the album’s fierce front half into an unexpectedly thoughtful and melodic denouement. “Every Second Well Spent” adds twinkling guitars, skittering drums, and — whuzzat? — some sweet saxophone blasts courtesy of Henry Redman, a truly colorful finish. The post-rock tradition of pinning the album’s most sprawling, atypical track to the penultimate slot is here upheld: the jazzy, nine-minute, “Couch” is an emotional bedrock for an album with an A-side so aggressive you’d never expect it needed one. It sends us down a Slint-ish rabbit hole toward hard-fought explosions in the spirit of Fugazi or Unwound. Closer “No Sympathy for Second Times” returns Gierhan’s electrifying drumwork and even allows an honest-to-god guitar solo. These songs rather rule.
Frontman Samuel Rich throws us four distinct singing voices over the album. One’s a shouted, sandpaper-y sneer that sounds whiskeyed-up and fully vocally fried. Another’s a weird, syrupy murmur. A third builds the first into a full-throated low-end shriek (thankfully lacking the contrived emotionality of adolescent screamo hardcore). And the fourth is a kind of non-annoying gothic pomp he pulls out on songs like “Borrowed Relief,” the album’s only imaginable radio-track. None of them sounds particularly comfortable, but each is a strong choice, and the variation gives Bully Mammoth a distinct range of styles. [Ed. there are actually two singers here - Rich and Kevin McPhee. The band do not credit vocals or instrumentation in their press materials, but the author feels like he should have known this anyway.]
Another thing you should know: This band is peculiar. I don’t mean that as a euphemism — they’re quite “good” at what they do — but I could imagine the experience being bizarre, unpredictable, and confusing for listeners, even ones who like heavy music. They’re also one of the more “masculine”-sounding bands in town — masculine here meaning antisocial and willfully obscurant rather than tough, angry, or patriarchal, if you’ll allow me that. Everything is super low-end and compressed, giving most of the album a sort of sick, swampy vibe that sounds good, but feels even better whenever they push through it. It requires patience. It’s barreling, but never propulsive. Sometimes it sounds lumpy, if you can understand that.
Let It Bully is an impressive album and one I enjoy, but I find I’m running out of places to listen to it or people I’d want to listen to it with. Isn’t there a meme for that part of adulthood?
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