Review Summary: The standard bearers of all things crushing and calculated: recycled and afraid to tear up their own rulebook
There are some albums that embody concepts of intensity and brutality to life in a way that has to be heard to be believed, and there are some that make you wonder whether those same concepts were particularly worthwhile to begin with. Not since the previous Car Bomb album, Meta
, have I come across anything that epitomises the latter category so clearly.
Before we get to the meat of it, a few disclaimers; I don't want to take this group in bad faith and it’d be unfair to overlook the qualities that made them so notable to begin with. Car Bomb are a group of talented musicians who make technical, brutal music that boldly challenges rhythmic and structural conventions. All good so far: their sound has a worthwhile scope and a strong set of chops behind it. Their disjointed, crushing ethic has obvious appeal to any fans of core music with a penchant for wackier, forward-thinking groups. Car Bomb cover all the bases of the scene’s basic attractions in a manner that feels very much their own; both Mordial
are clear showcases of this, and have been understandably admired by many as a result. All these are positive and respectable things, well worth acknowledging up front because further compliments of any kind are unlikely to be forthcoming.
The bottom line is that Car Bomb are abysmal songwriters whose confidence in their points of flourish and distinction is wildly misplaced given the slurry into which virtually every track on Mordial
disintegrates. Their writing logic seems to hinge around the assumption that the various loosely connected sections comprising each track are individually explosive, exciting and forceful enough to justify the near-total lack of segue that holds them together. This is just about enough to sustain the first proper track Fade Out
, one of the more cohesive offerings here, which cuts fairly cleanly between brutal verses and clean choruses before dropping unexpectedly into a strong bridge, which is developed with dynamics and melodic flair, gaining intensity at a measured pace and harmonising over 7th chords before cutting back into staggered heaviness. The song self-destructs with a snappy breakdown and all is over - so far so good. Follow-up Vague Skies
is where the album’s shortcomings become more evident. This track, and most others here, is prone to shifting gears between grooves and dynamics that have no natural relation to one another with zero warning and such forcefulness that the juxtaposition between sections loses its intrigue and comes off as an awkward mismatch. On the strength of its individual components, Vague Skies
is probably one of the better songs here. However, it takes distressingly little time for the abruptness of these transitions to come off as recycled and tedious in a way that overpowers any of the potential merit of individual sections. I get that the ‘point’ of this band’s sound is largely to explore the attraction of structural and rhythmic unpredictablity, the allure of lurch, the mathematics of chaos, or whatever. Credit where its due, it delivers on all these qualities on an immediate level, but it does so with such a limited stylistic vocabulary that the album picks up an overwhelming sense of homogeneity by the third or fourth track. There’s only much to differentiate one überbrutal off-kilter chugfest or compound time extravaganza here from any other, and for that unpredictability of the technical specifics, the affect and impression of the band’s MO quickly becomes immensely deja vu.
Car Bomb come across as a band afraid to tear up their own rulebook and there is little to distinguish them out as anything other than a particularly proficient practitioners of the same overplayed chugfests that have stagnated many other groups to oblivion. They aren’t beyond the occasional melodic or textural flourish, but they anchor their sound overwhelmingly in the same lowest-common-denominator open fret masturbation that routinely inspires the rolling of so many contemporary eyeballs in the direction of metal- or math- core. Their sense of groove and syncopation might be particularly developed, but this feels like a moot point in the face of the album’s endless homogeneity. Beyond a certain point, it feels like flogging a dead horse to pick any song out as a point of comparison to another; I consider it a generous degree of pedantry even to differentiate, say, Blackened Battery
from Naked Fuse
by virtue of the former’s thrashiness and the latter’s bombastic, melodic riffs. It doesn’t help that several of the album’s melodic components feel shoehorned to the point of hilarity; the group have a fondness for dropping clean choruses out of nowhere, which almost without fail are so saturated the nasal whininess and grunge-esque melodicism that they would have sound dated if they’d been released in the hey-day of 2000s nu-metal.
There are also short ambient interludes between many tracks, none of which are interestingly embellished or distinctively atmospheric. These seem to serve no purpose other than mitigating against the bafflingly crude with which most of these songs come to a close. If Car Bomb are poor songwriters, easily their greatest failing is in ending tracks: many songs stop with little to no warning after a flurry of token finale chugs that don’t scan as particularly final. None of these tracks (aside from perhaps Fade Out
) develop enough momentum for this to work as a tease-and-denial strategy, and one of the few tracks that does opts for an even more nonsensical approach. I did a complete double-take before accepting I’d heard this one correctly: after a standard-issue messy chugfest, Scattered Sprites
skips straight into one of the strongest bridges on the album, the guitars hitting an engaging and urgent sense melody, relatively bearable vocal harmonies matching the tone and the drums holding down a staggered beat that, for once, seems genuinely momentous. This lasts for a grand total of 11 seconds before the band revert to the previous chugged sections and fade the song out
. This baffles me on so many levels; fade-outs only work when a section of music has been successfully protracted and the sense of its repetition is both evident and convincing enough to be a natural note to ease the song out on. Not only do Car Bomb stop by far the most momentous, repeatable part of the song in question in its tracks, but they fade out as the song switches gears
. This is why guitarists should not be trusted to both write and solely self-produce music like this.
In fairness, I partially retract that last statement. Producer/guitarist/writer Greg Kubacki is easily the strongest part of the group in his first two roles, if not the latter. The production on this album is crisp yet crushing, conveying the intricacy of the band’s performance without sacrificing a modicum of intensity. His guitar stylings are also distinctive and occasionally interesting; while too fond by far of low-fretted artillery blasts, he has a knack for modulating sustained chords, picking out engagingly dissonant melodies and launching into higher pitched onslaughts that have given the band their reputation for ‘laser beam’-esque antics. These innovations are deployed sparingly but are without fail the most engaging part of Car Bomb’s sound, bolstered by the crunchy-yet-wet-edged tone that Kubacki has honed to perfection. Purely as a showcase of his talents and as a guitar workout, the album is largely successful, but this regrettably does not elevate any of it to the territory of otherwise worthwhile music.
In cases like this, I’m all too well that there’s little to differentiate criticism from the artist in question from criticism of the style as a whole, so to put things in context and frame my disappointment with Car Bomb’s take on the sense of disjointed intrigue intrigue this album opts for, it’s worth flagging up a case study for why this kind of sound is worthwhile to pull off in the first place. Lazy comparisons with the Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch or Meshuggah aside, the best touchstone I can think of for this is An Isle Ate Her’s deranged 2012 magnum opus Phrenia
. That album was every bit as set on subjecting to listener to an ongoing, obliterating lurch as Mordial
, but it dialled the latter’s sense of laboured calculation up to levels that were without fail viscerally intense. Phrenia
employed a range of abrupt shifts of gear across a constantly shifting combination of rhythmic, melodic and dynamic wavelengths in a way that afforded it a far greater and far more successful scope than this album; it wasn’t just disjointed, it was disturbing
. Everything about that album was violently jarring in a way the smacked of unhinged creativity; it was impossible to second-guess the various twists in any of its tracks, none of which were anything less that scathingly heavy. At points it was virtually unbearable, but it was never unconvincing or tiresome. Mordial
is all calculation and semblance of aggression, but is too staggered and dynamically limited to delver any lasting sense of engagement and it winds up in the category of worthwhile yet overwhelmingly failed experiments. I still wouldn’t write off the obvious talent that jumps out from some aspects of this band’s sound, but it feels a little optimistic to label them as a band with strong potential when, this far into their career, they seem so intent on repeating the same disappointments.