Review Summary: Controlled brutality.
Pupil Slicer. PUPIL SLICER. That’s the kind of band name that can repel prospective listeners in droves. Yet it’s not really a grotesque
name per se. It’s not like you’re approaching a band called Spermswamp or Pungent Stench, in which case you already suspect you’re in for something outright disgusting. No, the name Pupil Slicer is a different kind of repellent... one that provokes reactions of genuine unease and discomfort. It’s there to jar you out of contentment and imbue a lingering feeling of anxiety, even when nothing seems to be happening around you. Needless to say, this UK trio could not have picked a better name to represent their music.
The group’s first full-length affair Mirrors
sees them combining elements of mathcore, grindcore, and powerviolence as they unleash what could best be described as “controlled brutality”. Much like The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Calculating Infinity
, the sections that initially come off as mindlessly chaotic are every bit as deliberate as any of the other moments; it’s all about the big picture. One must not take this album’s “mathcore” tag lightly, as its complexity is really the glue that holds it together. Take the opener “Martyrs” for example; amidst the unhinged vocals and ugly distortion, the dissonant guitar jabs and off-kilter drumming create a constant sense of unpredictability. As visceral as the music often is, it’s not visceral in a sloppy or haphazard way. Case in point: shorter cuts like “Stabbing Spiders” and “Vilified”, in which some of the record’s most abrasive and fast-paced moments are given the same intricacies and quirks as the longer tracks. The former lives up to its name, as each instrument delivers erratic and discordant staccato stabs in perfect unison; meanwhile, the latter is a striking marriage of straightforward hardcore punk passages and strange out-of-left-field tempo shifts. In the case of both songs, you never have an opportunity to breathe or relax until they finish.
As was mentioned, however, the playing is unbelievably tight and purposeful despite how uncompromising the music is. Frontwoman Kate Davies is definitely the star of the show, with her gut-wrenching screams and unorthodox guitar playing; however, drummer Josh Andrews and bassist/backing vocalist Luke Fabian provide a perfect rhythmic anchor while dishing out their own brand of manic energy. The trio’s chemistry is their strongest asset, and it’s heard in just about every track here. Just listen to how “Wounds Upon My Skin” shifts effortlessly from bludgeoning downtuned riffs to soft creepy ambiance in an instant. Just listen to how Andrews can switch from blastbeats to a menacing crawl at the drop of a hat in “Save the Dream, Kill Your Friends”, and yet the rest of the members don’t miss a beat. Of course the band still manage to add a healthy dose of dark and deranged atmosphere to the record, both in the more ominous passages and bleak lyrics. A few tracks even whip out some black metal influence, such as the tremolo/blastbeat middle section of “Collective Unconscious” or the climactic ending of “Mirrors Are More Fun Than Television”. Getting back to Davies, however, the lyrics she spews out are just as intense and harsh as the music itself. The first stanza of “Martyrs” immediately sets the tone for the rest of the album:
”Acting out your sick dream,
experience through agony;
you're set free.
Tear apart prey you seek,
subhuman void of empathy, entangled greed.
A slow death now”
The lyrics of Mirrors
explore themes of death, violence, (self-) loathing, anger, internal conflict, fear, and - interestingly enough - empowerment. In fact, I’d argue that the main
theme of the album is that of empowerment and strength; it's just expressed in darker and less conventional ways than usual. This isn’t the vague and disingenuous “stand up and fight” stuff you hear in a lot of Rise Against anthems, but rather much more aggressive accounts of the cruelty and arrogance our narrator hates in the world. “Vilified” is probably the most specific example of this on the album, as the addressee has nothing better to do than cause “conflict when that feeling in you is starved” with “no regard, needless cruelty”. The lyrics in “Stabbing Spiders” are a twisted and ugly metaphor for staving off one’s false self, with lines such as “stabbing spiders that crawl on my skin, drilling through me within”.
Then there’s “Husk,” which ends with an even more poignant message as it addresses the same subject of falsehood in more conclusive terms:
“No more living in fear.
Persistent falsehoods - a disguise.
You'll end up as nothing - you're faking.
Lying to survive”
The only real issue with Mirrors
is that it does tend to get pretty homogeneous at times. Despite the complexity of the math-y moments, there’s not much stylistic variation; if you’re not listening intently enough, Davies’ screams and the near-constant aggression can become one big blur after a while. But that also speaks to one of the major strengths of the record: it does
demand to be listened to intently. While more variation here and there could have been welcome, the group’s commitment to create such a consistently enveloping, suffocating, and oppressive experience is commendable in its own right. Mirrors
is a wonderfully dark and unsettling reflection of Pupil Slicer’s equally discomforting name, and it’ll be exciting to see how they expand on their unique style on future records.