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Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013

Northless Exorcise Hurt Through Metal

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“Heavy” is the word used most often to describe the sound of Milwaukee-based metal outfit Northless—with “brutal” coming in as a close second. On their breakthrough album, 2011’s Clandestine Abuse, the four-piece embraced these adjectives with vigor, creating a claustrophobic soundscape that was as unrelenting as it was dark. Tracks such as “Flesh & Ghost,” “Not Made For Existence” and “Clandestine Abuse” had the grace of a sledgehammer, one meant to pummel the listener into aural submission. And many listeners did submit: The record found itself in many year-end Top 10 lists for 2011.

The success of Clandestine Abuse cast a large shadow over Northless vocalist/guitarist Erik Stenglein as he began writing songs for the band’s next album. On the one hand, the group had succeeded in creating a signature sound, one that was attracting more and more attention (“Clandestine Abuse” even premiered on a National Public Radio blog). Yet Stenglein didn’t want Northless to be seen as a one-trick pony. “A lot of people talked about how the last record was one dimensional,” explains Stenglein, “how, out of the gate, it was crushing the whole time. And that’s cool, as that’s what I like and listen to. But this time I got influenced by a lot more melodic stuff and went back to some ’90s stuff and even some ambient music.”

The result is World Keeps Sinking, a double LP set to be jointly released by Halo of Flies and Gilead Media on Aug. 23. Here, Stenglein, guitarist Nick Elert, bassist Jerry Hauppa and drummer John Gleisner have created a body of songs that build off of the strengths of the band’s earlier material while pushing the Northless sound in new, exciting directions. The influences of such acts as Neurosis, Eyehategod, Swans and Crowbar are still present, but one does hear traces of such ’90s bands as His Hero is Gone, Tragedy and early Converge throughout the seven tracks that make up World Keeps Sinking.

World Keeps Sinking
also sees Stenglein evolving as a lyricist. As on Clandestine Abuse, the world described on the new album is a generally depressing place. Yet the lyrics on World Keeps Sinking seem intensely personal, as Stenglein uses an economy of language to create evocative representations of his inner pain that move beyond standard metal imagery. Couplets such as “I stake a claim to nowhere / I watched you crawl right in” (from “Communion”) and “Rebirth gone / Returnless gaze” (from “Returnless”) evoke a more complex emotional response than simple allusions to death and decay. Stenglein’s lyrics throughout World Keeps Sinking are similarly blunt and to the point, evocative of how pain itself often feels.

Stenglein admits that many of the songs on World Keeps Sinking were motivated by traumas associated with his personal life. On the eve of writing songs for the double album, he had reached “the lowest point I’ve ever gotten to in my adult life. It was really bad. And that served as inspiration for many of the songs on the record.” For Stenglein, the act of releasing his hurt through music has proved difficult yet ultimately cathartic. While he admits it’s often hard to relive the events that inspired the lyrics, Stenglein ultimately wants to be as emotionally honest with his audience as possible.

All signs indicate that such emotional directness is proving attractive to fans and critics alike. The album’s title track recently premiered on Pitchfork and overwhelmingly positive reviews for the record are already piling up from a litany of metal publications. Since 2007, Northless has served as an anchor for the Milwaukee underground scene. Here’s hoping World Keeps Sinking convinces more listeners from around the world of what we in the city already know: Northless is one of the best metal bands of the early-21st century.

Northless play an LP release show at Quarters Rock ’n’ Roll Palace as part of a bill with Mouth of the Architect, Slaves and Much Worse on Friday, Aug. 23 at 8 p.m.
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