Review Summary: Just another chug-chug in the ocean.
Venturing into the term ‘originality’ quickly turns into a dangerous rabbit hole wherein all works of art are suddenly rendered poor and derivative of another, which is also derivative of another, and so on until art is the worst thing to be cursed upon humanity. It’s perhaps more prudent to accept two different dimensions of what constitutes as novelty in the modern era. There are works that are truly innovative and others that incorporate the blueprints of an existing sound, using it as a foundation and fine-tuning the schematics. I’m aware it’s a reviewing trope that I’ve leaned on in more than one piece, but its veracity still stands: Music’s barrier of entry has been thoroughly dismantled, the landscape of the industry becoming that of a violent ocean, with few bands managing to break the surface and catch a gasp of air. Most of the time, this sea cares not for musings over originality and unoriginality, but rather for whatever sounds good
—alongside a fair bit of luck, naturally. And, all joking and tired metaphors aside, Drain are far from occupying the opposite end of the spectrum, and California Cursed
deserves attention for what it does right. However, in their quest to burst through the waves and cling to a lifeboat, the young Santa Cruz outfit trapped themselves in two tug-of-war conflicts, each one serving to disrupt the objective to sound good
. On one side, there is a struggle to be different or conform to trends, whereas the other side features a duel of the genres. Propped up by powerful vocals but hampered by too many fellow elements, California Cursed becomes caught somewhere in the middle.
The first half of this debut record are where Drain are able to perform at their peak capacity. While not very attention-grabbing in the grand scheme of hardcore, opener “Feel the Pressure” flexes a sturdy groove during its refrain, a head-bobbing riff pulsing the song forward. Stereotypical ‘not going to take me down!’ lyrics fill the requirements for a suitable anthem for those that, well, aren’t going to be taken down. This template persists through the subsequent tracks, such as the short-lived “Sick One” and the adrenaline-fueled up-tempo entry “Army of One,” a darkened yet melodic guitar passage inciting the assault. During these numbers, the screams and shouts reign supreme over all contributors, their tonality imbued with tangible malice and anger, lyrical phrases spit out like it was of dire need to do so and air out grievances. Those descriptions, as tantalizing as they may be, also begin to demonstrate the initial cracks in the sonic output Drain have on exhibition. Second tune “Hyper Vigilance” lunges at the listener with urgency, sprinting out of the gate supported by vicious harsh vocals and a punishing rhythm. It all comes to end after a particularly erroneous breakdown emerges past the halfway portion of the track. Lumbering off into nothingness, the tune brings itself to a slow speed, depleting the accrued momentum of the initial onslaught. The guitars have no punch granted by the production and the bass feels like an afterthought when it could be providing a much-needed heaviness factor. Patterns repeat themselves on “Sick One” as its furious opening salvo of pounding percussion is reduced into a painfully dry breakdown. The vocalist does his best to pump the audience up by repeatedly shouting “YEAH, YEAH,” but all I hear is “No, no.”
Some of these issues can be attributed to the idea that Drain aren’t exactly sure where to place themselves. In the second section of California Cursed
, the observed deficiencies of the former segment are magnified in a series of generic hardcore formations. Following the strange inclusion of a mood-setting, acoustic-led interlude—extremely out of place in a whirlwind of brocore-esque prose—the quartet sleepwalks into “White Coat Syndrome,” its structuring and general identity attempting to mimic the beatdown movement while lacking the heaviness the splinter category was regarded for. There’s nothing astounding or interesting about the number as it mechanically operates one breakdown after another. The diminished bass presence is sorely felt as each chugging note lands with unremarkable force. When the low end does briefly shine in “The Process of Weeding Out,” it fails to do anything engaging and is still far too muted in comparison to the rest of the group. An unexpected fast-paced outburst and fleeting guitar solo is promptly killed by—surprise, surprise—another misguided breakdown that the vocalist desperately strives to salvage. Drain straddle the line between committing to straight-up hardcore and pure beatdown, but the tools aren’t there for either to succeed; as maligned as it may be, beatdown can at least claim to possess commendable weight in its punishing tempo deconstructions. Simply put, the drumkit here is too reserved to provide the kick that genre demands, the bass is a barely-considered variable, and the guitars, while crunchy, fail to reach the depths of an outfit a la Black Tongue. The interference of these slower moments and their poor composition thus make it similarly difficult to pledge to hardcore romps.
Merging the two realms might yield a sufficiently diverse product, yet that is where originality becomes a concern. It appears that, once again, this is mainly attributable to the other 11 of the release’s concise 22-minute duration. The majority of the creations begin to embark upon linear, tried-and-true-and-boring beatdown maneuvers that don’t sound good
and rather feel ripped from fellow collectives. Criticisms launched at that particular movement apply here; proceedings are nauseatingly stationary in their progressions, causing songs to become indistinguishable, albeit heavy, mush. Hardcore influence, which was tenuous to begin with, becomes a distant memory, further compounding the dilemma of possessing a weak low end. There are undoubtedly positives to uncover in what Drain has provided, but they are outnumbered by a series of faults that gradually increase in their prevalence. It’s not helpful that the disc does run so short on time, as many arrangements arrive and depart without feeling fully lived in, such as the sluggish title track, which resides in that same lethargic velocity and never goes anywhere—except into more breakdowns, of course. The generally scattered remains of California Cursed
resonate like a flawed beginning, though not one without merit; Drain have entertaining songs to head-bang or mosh to, and the low end problem can probably be cured by a live setting. What’s on record, however, cannot be saved by impressive vocals or rare highlights. Losing a battle with originality and overall identity equals a flawed experience in need of patching-up, lest this ship also fall victim to music’s raging waters.