Did things actually get heavier? Again? Yes, that’s what just happened.
I find it increasingly difficult to accurately convey the degree to which certain bands of a heavy persuasion take the fundamental ingredients commonly associated with metal or hardcore music and ramp them up to new heights. So you can imagine my inner music critics’s anxiety levels peaking when I sat down to share a few thoughts on The Tower, the crushing debut from Saint John’s Surface Wounds. It’s a beast of an EP, to say the least.
In trying to decide how to approach these four songs, I figured I begin by establishing the forms through which they exist. Every genre has its defining structures, those parameters that (intentionally or unintentionally) guide a musician’s creative process and shape the music they write. For example, the most well-known folk musicians are usually the ones who can pen a moving set of lyrics that stick with the listener long after a song is finished. Your John Prines, your Bob Dylans and your Joni Mitchells. You know the ones. Folk music is about telling and sharing stories, and I would go so far as to say it’s rarely the melodies that we remember, but more the stories we’re told. But even language has its limitations. There are only so many ways you can phrase a set of lyrics to get a story across. After that, it’s up to the supporting melodies and probably most importantly, the delivery, to help shape a song’s intended mood or emotion as a means of forging a connection with a listener. The same goes for pop music. There’s a formula that works, and has for decades. Occasionally an artist will sidestep the predictable and do something unique, but not often. It’s almost like a set of rules have been created to govern what an artist working within a particular genre can do or say. Stepping outside what is expected has its consequences. But when we’re talking about the wild and unpredictable world of modern metal music, few if any of these rules apply. It’s pretty much all in the delivery.
One of the things that makes heavy music such an interesting conglomerate of genres to follow is the limitless possibilities afforded to the groups who’ve chosen to make “loud and powerful” key ingredients of their craft. Without discounting the value lyrics play in the equation, I don’t think I’m wrong in saying the face of modern metal is defined by its sheer intensity more than its thought provoking prose. I mean let’s be clear, a lot of heavy music seems to focus less on having its lyrical content delivered in a way that’s easy to understand upon first listen. Instead, the voice of a singer (or singers) seems to more accurately play the part of an instrument than a messenger or a narrator. This stylistic choice provides the listener with a completely different form of engagement, forcing them to seek out a song’s lyrics to uncover an entirely new layer of meaning behind the music. But of course, you could also just as easily forgo the research aspect of it all and simply relish in the musical might on full display. We are talking about metal music after all, and it’s the riffs that we remember once the lights come up.
While The Tower is just four songs in length, or about a 14 minute listen, Surface Wounds’ Tyson Kingsley, Dusty Bayerle, Dan Finn, Yurgos Elisseou and Dawson Cole use their time effectively, and with great confidence. There isn’t a wasted second on this EP. It’s all pedal through the metal, full of dynamic dips and turns, crazy rhythm change-ups and big BIG riffs. Everything you’d expect from a metal album in 2020, but with one important addition. Space.
Between the epic riffs and the breakneck change-ups, Surface Wounds employ a very effective sense of space on this recording. That’s kind of a big deal and something only achieved by musicians who understand how music really works. Not just the heavy stuff, but all of it. Music will always need room for everything to breathe. That’s part of a musician’s job, knowing how that all works. Metal music has a tendency to get very congested very quickly, especially a lot of the modern stuff. Amazingly, Surface Wounds avoided this major pitfall because they get it. It’s obvious these guys have a very solid understanding, not only of what makes music heavy and exciting, but what makes music work. Period. That’s an admirable trait for any band, let alone a band that just put out its self-recorded, debut EP.
Also, it’s heavy as fuck. It’s next level.