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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Northless: Finding Catharsis Through Metal

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Clandestine Abuse, the latest album by local metal heavyweights Northless, has picked up a tremendous amount of national attention since its release in March. Such hip media outlets as BrooklynVegan and Decibel magazine have run glowing reviews of the record, and even National Public Radio (NPR) has given the band props through its "All Songs Considered" blog—not bad for a band that NPR describes as having a sound so huge it's like a "woolly mammoth riding a humpback whale through Stonehenge."

Clandestine Abuse
really is worthy of such praise. It is an overwhelming record, one that weighs on the listener while creating an atmosphere of intense pressure and dread.

"It's no secret that I harbor a lot of existential angst and misery," explains chief lyricist and vocalist/guitarist Erik Stenglein, "and I really think that comes across naturally in how I write, whether it be lyrics or music."

Not surprisingly, music and lyrics match perfectly on the album, creating an aura that is ultimately all-encompassing. Clandestine Abuse, in other words, is not an album you put on as background music.

But what separates Clandestine Abuse from earlier Northless material is the band's willingness to broaden its approach to heavy music this time around. On such tracks as "Clandestine Abuse" and "Damnation," the group's pummeling attack is broken up by parts seemingly influenced by a host of Touch and Go and Dischord bands of the 1990s. The addition of players Nick Elert (guitar) and John Gleisner (drums) has, according to Stenglein, "brought some perspectives and influences that were new to the band, which is why you're hearing a lot more '90s math rock, noise rock and black metal influences in these songs." Such parts create a sense of calm within the maelstrom of noise Northless is able to produce, a strategy that allows the listener a much-needed respite while further highlighting just how crushing the band can be when they turn it back on.

In the hands of many lesser bands, the relentless devotion to such a despair-ridden sound would seem to be a put-on. And it should be noted that the band members are all welcoming, bright people (Stenglein is a social worker). Yet one gets the feeling that the band, particularly for Stenglein, helps to keep them sane.

As he explains: "Without sounding like a weirdo, I've been through a lot of fucked-up shit in my life. Reality and existence are pretty miserable for me, based on my own experiences and things I've encountered through my work as a social worker." In light of such experiences, Northless serves as a "catharsis" for Stenglein. "I absolutely need an outlet," he concludes, "and this is it."

All of this comes together on album closer "The Storm." While all of Clandestine Abuse trades in images of grief, anger and despair, the lyrics to "The Storm" seem more personal, as if Stenglein was directly addressing someone. "You do it to your own kind," he sings, "where your children cannot see. You do it because you hate; you're no better than us." The world can be a horrible place. It does us no good, Northless reminds us, to try to look the other way.

Northless headlines the Cactus Club on Friday, May 20, with The United Sons of Toil, Lord Brain and Gas Chamber.
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