There is a physical difference that coincides with the sonic one between singing and screaming. They come from different places in the throat and the diaphragm, use different muscles, hurt differently, and when a vocalist switches from one technique to the other, no matter how natural it sounds, there’s a conscious decision (or at least a physical act, the way moving your left arm is still a conscious decision without the thought being put into it, “Move left arm now”) being undertaken. I bring it up because although the last couple Negative Reaction records – 2006’s Under the Ancient Penalty and 2008’s Tales From the Insomniac – have seen guitarist/vocalist Ken-E Bones experiment increasingly with cleaner singing, there nonetheless must have been a point at which he made the choice to make the technique the crux of what’s used on their latest PsycheDOOMelic outing, Frequencies From Montauk. Bones’ vocals have always been a distinguishing – and often divisive – factor in Negative Reaction’s music. The only remaining founding member of the band, the Long Island, New York, native is joined on Frequencies From Montauk by longtime drummer John “Old” MacDonald and former/once-again bassist Damon Limpy, and though both players in the rhythm section make their presences felt, Negative Reaction is Ken-E Bones’ show and the material follows his direction.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve known Bones personally and have considered him a friend for a decade at this point, if not longer. We have a formative collaboration together and speak regularly about a range of topics both personal and/or related to music. Before I knew him as closely as I now do, however, I was a fan of the band, so when it comes to reviewing, I feel comfortable being honest in my appraisal of Negative Reaction’s work, and if at the end of writing this review I’m not ready to stand behind it as having the appropriate critical distance, I won’t post it. Simple as that.
That said, anyone who hasn’t kept up with Negative Reaction in their post-Game Two Records era (2003 and on) will be immediately surprised by the tone of Frequencies From Montauk, which is more heavy riff rock than based on the abrasive sludge of their past. Bones’ guitar comes through with Orange-hued distortion, and Limpy’s bass, while clean toned and not as prevalent as it might otherwise be in the mix, is a major signifier nonetheless that although they’ve maintained some of their New York hardcore edge, they’re simply a different band than that which put out the debut endofyourerror in 1996. The shift in sound on these 11 tracks (plus a bonus) isn’t outlandish as compares especially to Tales From the Insomniac, but the difference is that record felt transitional and Frequencies From Montauk comes off more assured of its place. Cuts like opener “Day After Yesterday,” the upbeat “Shattered Reflection” and the penultimate “Angels & Demons” are more straightforward stoner rock than either sludge or doom, Bones’ riffing prevalent and the songs less musically depressive than some of the other material in the band’s recent history. A start-stop toward the end of “Shattered Reflection” (an album highlight) in which each player sounds off on his instrument, is downright playful.
The lyrics follow suit – at least partially. Where Under the Ancient Penalty and Tales From the Insomniac were lyrical chronicles of depression and rage, Frequencies From Montauk reintroduces the sci-fi elements that typified records like 2000’s The Orion Chronicles EP, establishing a balance not unlike that of 2003’s Everything You Need for Galactic Battle Adventures, on which “I Hate Me” was immediately followed by the Star Wars-inspired “Price on a Head.” Star Wars shows up on Frequencies From Montauk as well. “Docking Bay 94,” the third track, is named for where the Millennium Falcon is parked at Mos Eisley, but “Planet Sagar and the Trobbits” marries references to the cartoon Blackstar to a story about feeling isolated in New York City – resulting in one of the record’s most effective unions. Songs like the semi-grunge “Dopamine,” the chorus of which comes off as oddly reminiscent of River Runs Red-era Life of Agony, and “A Bit of Numb” are more direct in their conveying an emotional state, both lyrically and in their quiet verse/loud chorus tradeoffs. The latter, which features the lines, “I’m not mad I’m miserable/Happiness is unachievable,” ultimately proves the more effective of the pair, thanks in part to Limpy’s creeping bass and the foreboding undercurrent of MacDonald’s drums, Bones working a Nirvana-esque riff into the explosive chorus.
New York hardcore is never completely gone from Negative Reaction’s sound, though, however far in other directions they might wander. Additionally a standout because it sounds like it was recorded at a different session than the rest of Frequencies From Montauk, the centerpiece “Thicker than Blood” is straight-up toughguy chugging, with socially-aware disaffection in the lyrics. “Angels and Demons” touches on some of the same ideas in its chorus, but winds up being not nearly as distinct in its genre roots as “Thicker than Blood,” which is all the more a turn stylistically following “Shattered Reflection.” Clearly the intent is to take the listener by surprise, and it works. Bones’ vocals seem to come across lower in the mix and in a lower register than some of the other shouts on cuts like “Day After Yesterday” and the semi-screamed “Docking Bay 94” – the Sleep riff (you’ll know it when you hear it) of which is masterfully implemented – and that works to the song’s benefit. Elsewhere, as on “Dopamine” or the pre-chorus break of “Space Capsule 1,” he dominates vocally where the guitars and bass should be at the fore, and the mix winds up being ultimately what most holds Frequencies From Montauk back. Limpy’s tone sounds thinner than I know it is in a live setting, and Bones’ vocals being pushed to the front, the impression is that the album was produced more like a rock record than a heavy rock record. If that seems like a fine line, it isn’t.
It’s obviously not an issue on the charmingly synthesized instrumental title-track or the closing “Elsie in Space,” but even on the unlisted bonus cover of Pink Floyd’s “The Nile Song,” one gets the impression that the fuzz could be thicker. I’ll allow that “vocals down, bass up” isn’t everyone’s idea of a perfect mix, and that perhaps Negative Reaction were going for something completely different on Frequencies From Montauk, but it’s something that works in the style and something which, if they’re going to continue pursuing the heavy rock vein that some of these songs explore – and I hope they will, because it works for them – is something they might want to consider on the level of matching their production aesthetic with that of their songwriting. Still, the album isn’t poorly recorded. As it stands, some will no doubt be put off by the change in sound or some of these mixing issues, but doubtless Frequencies From Montauk will allow Negative Reaction to bring new heads into the fold. Only subsequent albums will tell if this marks a new beginning for the band, but if so, much like the bizarre scientific experiments for which the album is named, Negative Reaction continue to occupy their own corner of the space/time continuum.
Negative Reaction, “Shattered Reflection”:
Tags: Long Island, Negative Reaction, New York, PsycheDOOMelic Records