Review Summary: Killing the part that cringes
For roughly the past year or so, I have enthusiastically hopped on board the "nu-metal was good, actually" bandwagon that has picked up some e-steam here and there, as the turn of the century recedes just far enough in the rearview to have a good time pretending it wasn't a roundly dismal time for music in general and guitar music in particular. It's not a joke, though: yes, treating the likes of Limp Bizkit and Coal Chamber as visionary innovators is an inspired way to ruffle music nerd feathers, but nothing unearths hidden value quite like a new framework, and a framework that accepts the angstiest young men (and women!) of the late 90s as serious artists does a lot to illuminate the things that made them superstars: their willingness to adapt and play to trends, their treasure troves of compelling rhythmic ideas, and (perhaps most importantly) their unfiltered, bleed-onto-the-page lyricism. For all the genre's glaring faults, it's not that
hard to reimagine the stereotypical nu-metal fan of 20-ish years ago not as a schoolyard bully or a crass philistine, but as an outcast, a victim of society, a hurt kid in desperate need of outlets for intense, often destructive thoughts and feelings.
Nu-metal has never been a dirty word to Ada Rook. From her witch house-y early albums to her potentially-era-defining work as half of Black Dresses, Rook's breathy mutters and unvarnished shrieks of agony have long held at least trace amounts of turn-of-the-century metallic aggression, and her grindustrial project Crisis Sigil has twice now delved deep into the pummeling atonality Slipknot never had the stones to go all-in on. Still, even amidst the crunchier electro-rock of 2,020 Knives
or 2018’s excellent Shed Blood
, Rook stayed comfortably on the outermost periphery of nu-metal, taking clear inspiration from the genre’s leading lights while keeping her feet planted in more current styles. Well, no more! UGLY DEATH NO REDEMPTION ANGEL CURSE I LOVE YOU
not only marks Rook’s most pugnacious and focused work to date, it also fully embraces the almighty CHUG and rhythms that inspire as much moshing as dancing, pulling liberally from damn near every subgenre to ever tread the seam between electronic and metal in the process. The result is a bracing melange of catchyheavy sounds old and new, as much 100 gecs as Atari Teenage Riot as Static-X as Skrillex. You won’t headbang this much to an album with this few guitars all year.
From its first proper track, “999999999 IN A DREAM”, UGLY DEATH
hits like a ton of razorblades— hard, fast and bloody. Rook's contributions to Default Genders' 2020 remix album Pain Mop Girl
showed her already-remarkable facility with programmed beats starting to crystallize into a true force to be reckoned with, and here that force has become much more literally forceful. You want examples? Witness "GRAVITY WEAPON"'s opening bounce build into a bulldozing industrial banger replete with dissonant guitar wheedles that somehow become an instant-classic hook in their own right! Succumb to "XANAFALGUE"'s punishing blend of frantic djent and even frantic-er breakcore, and enjoy the hysterically funny detour into mellow hold music that swoops in just when you're sure you're at your limit! Swoon over the perfectly Benningtonian melodrama of Ash Nerve's chorus on "UNDERNEATH IT ALL" before it's ruthlessly punctured by buzzing EDM hits and Rook's rabid screams; when it finally locks into a stable groove, the release of pent-up tension electrifies the entire rest of the song. From a production standpoint, UGLY DEATH
is a virtuosic performance, manipulating volume, distortion and pitch to maximize each moment's effectiveness. The album puts forth such a cohesive sonic vision, in fact, that the two short tracks produced by frequent Rook collaborator ESPer99 quickly start to register as skipworthy: "night in a secret world" ends too soon for its prettiness to unfold rewardingly, and "im cis" blows out the album's most explicit and direct statement of purpose almost to the point of indecipherability. The latter could have been interesting as a symbolic purging of Rook's less developed artistic impulses if the music elsewhere didn't speak for itself so well; as it stands, it comes dangerously close to putting too fine a point on an album that's plenty sharp already.
On that note, UGLY DEATH
also marks a deliberate break from previous solo albums' insistence on each lyrical notion correlating to some specific, real-world stressor— angst still dominates the album, but the narration is no longer so trapped inside frozen moments of trauma, so unable to process negativity in more removed or ambiguous ways. This discovery that art can be therapeutic without literally being therapy has far-reaching effects on Rook's songwriting, but it ultimately ends up an undertone highlighting the album's principal mission of empowerment and closure through shamelessness. It’s here where UGLY DEATH
’s nu-influences shine most brightly, and where they’re given the most fresh life. The album makes heavy use of samples, almost all of them from the trashy 2007 sci-fi anime Ice
, and in conjunction with all the pivots from sugary pop to pounding metal and back again, the album builds a strong and distinct aesthetic around wearing its most un-hip and lowbrow influences on its sleeve. Rook matches this with a newfound willingness to tangibly strike back against adversity, and moments like “PURGATOR3Y MODULATION ENGINE“‘s “wake up every day, you push past it” repeating as her voice cracks and contorts hit home on a level previous albums barely even hinted at. Elsewhere, “GRAVITY WEAPON” reserves one of the album’s most devastating drops until after Rook proudly proclaims herself a “degenerate piece of shit”, and the cathartic war-cry of “LET’S GOOOO, MOTHERFUCKER!” rings all the sweeter as a result.
This all builds to a head on album closer “5H4D0W H34R7Z”, which ties together UGLY DEATH
’s many disparate threads so casually that it feels almost accidental. From the club-ready snap beat to the simplistic downtuned riffing to the anime samples to the confrontational sexuality on display, it’s the least self-conscious Rook has ever sounded on record, and very possibly the freest. It’s a big, mushy love letter to everything that the indie cognoscenti of ten or even five years ago would have sneered out of the room as “cringe”. And maybe they would have been right. Maybe making metal catchy and groovy and appealing to the masses is cringe. Maybe anime is cringe. Maybe EDM is cringe and maybe queerness is cringe and maybe feeling sexy and wanting sex and singing about that is cringe. Maybe facing down trauma is the most literal and concentrated form of cringe there is. And maybe, just maybe
, letting “cringe” control you is a one-way ticket to never making or experiencing anything interesting or unique, and embracing it is the only way to be comfortable in your own skin. UGLY DEATH
finds one of the most exciting young musicians out now sounding stronger, tougher and more confident than ever. Far as I’m concerned, we only have cringe to thank.