The band’s original 1998 swansong, …At a Loss can be taken two ways when put in the context of Buzzov*en’s catalog as a whole. On the one hand, it’s the Wilmington, North Carolina, outfit’s most coherent offering in terms of songcraft, use of structure, and general self-awareness. By 1998, there may not have been nearly as many practitioners of it as there are today, but there was a set of sludge acts from across the US – Bongzilla and Eyehategod come to mind as contemporaries – and Buzzov*en were always intelligent enough to understand what was happening around them, as they were constantly on tour. So it’s a record with a place and a defined direction. On the other hand, with that, you necessarily lose the chaos of Buzzov*en’s earlier work in albums like To a Frown (1993) and Sore (1994), which had a fuck-all throwaway feel that simply can’t be replicated by anyone who knows what they’re doing without sounding contrived on some level. What’s certain in listening to …At a Loss is that Buzzov*en did pill-popping misanthropy like no one either in the American South or anywhere else. Even as what’s ostensibly their most accessible album, …At a Loss is a litmus test for how much aural hatred a person can withstand before pressing stop.
Given new life with a recent reissue thanks to Michigan imprint Emetic Records, every second of …At a Loss feels saturated with anger. It’s a humid, swampy sound to start with, and Buzzov*en revel in it across songs like the ultra-slow “Loricet,” the blastingly punkish “Flow,” which follows immediately, and the opening title-track, which begins the album with a sample of Robert Di Niro from Taxi Driver giving the “Someday a real rain’s gonna come…” monologue like it’s a mission statement for …At a Loss itself. The samples – an integral part of Buzzov*en’s assault – were handled at last by T-Roy Medlin, who had already by then formed Sourvein, and though that inevitably dates the record in the context of how overused sampling became in sludge, doom and stoner rock, it’s important to remember how pioneering Buzzov*en were in the method and that their doing so involved tapes and not laptops. I don’t know if that makes a difference in how most ears will hear …At a Loss 13 years after the fact, but the context is worth considering one way or the other.
Songs like “Crawl Away,” “Kakkila” and the more upbeat “Dirtkicker” feel like a blueprint of sludge to come, with guitarist/vocalist Kirk “Reverend Dirtkicker” Fisher sounding as though his lifespan is shortening by the minute while “Dixie” Dave Collins introduces the audience to the signature tone that will go on to typify Weedeater releases for the next decade-plus up to this year’s excellent Jason… the Dragon. Feedback is liberal and constant, and even Electric Light Orchestra isn’t safe from the mud Buzzov*en are slinging, as the cover of their 1979 hit “Don’t Bring Me Down” is as filthy as the rest of the material on …At a Loss. Later cut “Useless” is an album highlight (mostly for personal reasons, admittedly), despite following essentially the same structure and riff progression as the earlier “A Sack Of,” playing raucous loud parts of quiet verses with short builds between from drummer Ramzi “Simple Man” Ateyeh, whose abuse of his ride cymbal should be taught as an example to would-be drumming schoolchildren everywhere.
As Buzzov*en have at least semi-reunited with this lineup, the timing of this Emetic reissue is nearly perfect. There will be plenty of younger heads out there who will appreciate the heaviness and meanness of …At a Loss and find it a better place to start than some of the band’s even-less-accessible earlier work, and for anyone maybe looking to revisit their special brand of violence will find it’s well worth the effort. While closer “Left Behind” gives way after nearly eight minutes of punishment to positively unlistenable looped noise for the next 28-plus minutes (that’s not to say I’ve ever sat through it all, because I haven’t), Buzzov*en’s contempt is once again palpable, and as that was the driving force of the band during their time together, all the more appropriate that their final “fuck you” should be their most potent. In many ways, that applies to the whole of …At a Loss. They might have known what they were doing by then, but what they were doing was still devastating enough to destroy the band, and 13 years later, you can still hear that on these songs.
Tags: Buzzov*en, Emetic Records, North Carolina, Wilmington