A reasonably promising debut from the New York doom-sludge-sorta-post-ish metal outfit.
Despite it’s predilection for inventing a new sub-genre every five minutes the metal scene has trouble with the mid paced and crushingly heavy. Cleanteeth describe themselves as, “beard impregnating doom metal,” a ludicrous statement on a couple of levels. Without speculating on what ‘beard impregnatingly’ is actually supposed to mean, this isn’t really doom. I can’t see anyone wanting to follow up Sleep’s Dopesmoker or Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone or any dope related album with this. Most people who review this sort of stuff seem happy to go along with that descriptor though, or even go with sludge, which is equally off base. A few years ago it might have been labelled ‘post-metal.’ But post metal, as well as it’s goody two shoes twin brother post-rock, has sadly fallen out of fashion – it’s only a few notches above nu metal in the cultural cachet stakes. It probably has something to do with the stupid name – ‘post’ anything basically saying, “oh man we are *so over that.* When really it’s just a catch all term for idiots like me who need to throw a critical velvet rope around some bands so we can mentally put some kind of narrative on things.
I have a theory – the reason people want to dub this stuff doom or sludge is because this brand of metal sounds uncomfortably close to a bunch of stuff that would have been thrown in with the nu metal lot back in the day. There were a number of bands who got tarred with that brush back then despite never even considering getting a DJ in to scratch or accept an invite to guest on a Soulfly album just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time and having a fondness for drop D tuning. And even two decades after it’s heyday the term nu metal is still toxic. It’s like those areas in Chernobyl which are still rife with radiation – no one wants to try and make a home there. But I long for a day when we can listen to a band like Cleanteeth and admit that Stay on Target’s riff could have come from one of the heavier album tracks by many a b-grade nu-metal band and not be ashamed. But I can’t see that day coming any time soon – so when Collision Specialist goes into clean vocals it’s the kind of sound that is bound to upset those who wake up in the night screaming with memories of wallet chains and circus tent jeans. If they’re going to enjoy this album then it’s damn well going to be a doom/sludge album.
I’m not trying to claim Cleanteeth are secretely a nu metal band – far from it. They’re just not a doom band. They have more in common with the likes of Kowloon Walled City, Will Haven, Erlin Mayer, as well as those post-metal types that leaned more towards the latter half of that descriptor like Rwake and early Cult of Luna. It’s a dense, harsh sound, and in creating it Cleanteeth have a secret weapon up their sleeve – Dalek producer Alap Momin aka Oktopus. Dalek’s Absence record is the kind of suffocating, paranoid aural nightmare that most of these types of metal bands can only dream of. Indeed, despite being a hip hop record it was adopted by parts of the metal community as somehow being metal, as if their genre was the only one capable of being heavy in that way. Also being on Ipecac, the label Isis released post-metal high water mark Oceanic on, probably didn’t help. I came across them myself in Kerrang! magazine of all places, one of the annoying gems they highlighted now and again that kept buying the magazine during that confused aftermath of the collapse of nu metal where ’emo’ was the thing they were pimping in between articles on Sum 41 and whatever Green Day were up to.
But anyway, having the guy behind that nightmarish sound is a smart choice – whereas some bands of this ilk prefer to work with plenty of space, creating sounds that evoke images of wide open vistas or endless seas, Cleanteeth prefer the opposite – to choke off the space and create a feeling of claustrophobia. The riffs occasionally stop or stutter but for the most part they lurch and lumber unforgivingly. Opener Blame Canada sets the tone perfectly – it’s a dense, oppressive experience full of pained yells and relentless, all encompassing guitar heaviosity. However it doesn’t borrow as much from Dalek as one might hope – there are moments, particularly in the second half of songs, where the high end guitars sound similar to that horrifying metal screeching and scraping against concrete sound that was used liberally throughout Absence, which works to ratchet up the claustrophobia and dread element. And there are a few moments where that familiar hiss of static permeates. Some of which add to the atmosphere, but if like me you’ve spent a lot of time with dalek’s oeuvre they feel like odd bits of fan service from Oktopus. Which, amidst someone elses record, is a jarring experience. It has a smiliar effect to the joke callbacks in the 4th series of Arrested Development – neat bits of nostalgia that make you hark back to a time when the original gags still had their impact, when they were belly laughs and not just wry smiles. But hey, maybe I’m just getting old.
Regardless, throughout Pushing Rope‘s opening four tracks the sound is something to be reckoned with. But from there, barring a late album surge, a bit of an identity crisis sets in. You might fear this is the case just looking at the cover – it looks vaguely post-metal, but the title is a gag (Pushing Rope is a term fans of Archer will know well), which begs the question – is this a joke? If so…where’s the punchline? It’s certainly not in the tracklist – groan worthy joke titles like Blame Canada (nice topical reference there gents) Sexual Mustache don’t exactly elicit belly laughs, do they? Are they aiming for a throwback to the ‘glory’ era of comedy spazzy-hardcore song titles? If so, why is the music is so po-faced? That’s not a criticism, as when it works it deserves to be taken seriously, but the presentation does no one any favours. It makes me not want to read the lyric sheet – admittedly the odd discernible lyric here or there (the refrain from the delightfully titled Shitbreather that goes “YOU ARE COVERED IN BACTERIA!” is pretty amusing in an unsettling way) is pretty funny, but I’d rather not have some dude clowning in my ears trying to make me laugh in the midst of a punishing metal onslaught.
Then there’s the two interludes that sandwich the nu metal flashback inducing Collision Specialist – French Kissing Alexander Hamilton and They Don’t Look Like Mermaids. They’re the kind of glitchy static laden stuff Fennesz might knock out and discard before breakfast. They don’t really add anything to the album, and why they’re sequenced so close together is a mystery as they kill the momentum dead. A couple of album highlights Beardsly (presumably named after the Newcastle and England footballer, a subject once deemed too terrifying for even metal to cover) and Sexual Mustache ride in to save the day, though the suspicion that Cleanteeth don’t really have a clear idea what they set out to achieve has already sat in.
Which is a shame – despite my reservations there’s a lot here to enjoy. And while they’ve had a good five years to work out where they’re at Pushing Rope but is still a debut album so it’s only fair to give them the benefit of any doubt. If the current black metal thing isn’t your bag but you don’t want to slow quite down to the pace of the million or so bands with the word Bong in their title, Pushing Rope has a lot to recommend it. There’s some intense, cloying, pummeling sounds here that suggest Cleanteeth could have something even better in store for us somewhere down the line if they figure out what exactly they want to be.