Dwellers, Good Morning Harakiri: Rituals of Skin and Bones

Also written as “seppuku,” the traditional Japanese practice of harakiri is a form of samurai ritual suicide wherein one plunges a short blade into one’s own belly and slices the blade from left to right. A second person stands behind with a sword and, at a previously-agreed-upon time after the person has disemboweled himself, strikes a decapitating blow. How the notion came to be incorporated with the debut full-length from Salt Lake City, Utah, heavy trio Dwellers, I don’t know, but if there’s some tie in with the theme of “spilling one’s guts,” I’d believe it. Good Morning Harakiri (Small Stone) rocks heavy and naturally for its vinyl-ready 41-minute duration, and is not without its sense of ritual. The band, which unites guitarist/vocalist Joey Toscano of Iota with the same rhythm section that propelled SubRosa’s excellent 2011 offering, No Help for the Mighty Ones – that being bassist Dave Jones and drummer Zach Hatsis – is surprisingly assured in its approach for Good Morning Harakiri being the first album, and the six tracks play out with an organic, blues-based steadiness offset by genre-straddling excursions into psychedelia and doom.

In that way, Good Morning Harakiri is a fitting follow-up to Iota’s excellent 2008 Small Stone debut and swansong, Tales, which melded heavy and space rock together seamlessly and added psychedelic flourish even in Toscano’s vocals, which were melodic echoes from the deep reaches of the Andy Patterson mix (the label’s go-to knob-twiddler, Benny Grotto, also got a word in that regard). Patterson, who also drummed in Iota, handled production for Dwellers (he also did the SubRosa), and dials back that echo somewhat on Toscano’s singing, bringing him forward more early in the album so that, aside from closer “Old Honey,” the singing sounds more confident. And as much as one can read Good Morning Harakiri as an extension of some of Iota’s ideas – Toscano presumably being at the fore creatively in both bands adds to the validity of that read – there’s no discounting the fluidity and the depth of Jones’ and Hatsis’ contributions. Not only do they hold down the extended side A and B closers “Vultures” (10:12) and the aforementioned “Old Honey” (9:53) but they do so with range and personality befitting players well accustomed to working with each other. Also, rather than let Toscano range, so that it’s melody on one side and rhythm on another, with Dwellers, it’s the guitar, bass and drums working together as a solid unit, which is the power trio ideal, so that although every cut on Good Morning Harakiri begins with guitar, the album never strays too far in its indulgences.

Rather, it keeps somewhat to the sort of duality Iota showed in songwriting on Tales, balancing shorter, more straightforward material against longer pieces. With the exception again of “Old Honey,” the songs on Good Morning Harakiri are less space-oriented (and certainly less space-thematic), and though opener “Secret Revival” sets a bruising course after its crisply-strummed intro, the overall affect is more like an expansion on Facelift-era Alice in Chains, particularly given the tone of Toscano’s vocals. Hatsis’ kick is prominent but not dominating, and the already-considerable fuzz in Toscano’s guitar is given low-end boost by Jones on bass, which is smoothly toned and rich. Still, the song is notable in comparison to “New Mantis,” which opened Tales, for the intensity it doesn’t have. Where that song and “We are the Yithians” seemed almost in a rush get through themselves, both “Secret Revival” and “Black Bird,” which follows, replace that intensity with a firm grasp on a bluesy approach, and in the case of the latter, dead-on grooving stomp to match a semi-Southern riff. Not to belabor the point, but Good Morning Harakiri’s clear LP-minded presentation (that is, the two distinct sides that come through even on a CD or digital listen) marks another departure from Iota’s method, which bunched its longer songs together in a linear flow. Both work, but Dwellers shows more diversity in songwriting, so that while “Black Bird” veers into psychedelic guitar layering in its second half, “Vultures” is out of place neither with that nor the verses and chorus preceding, despite being longer and providing more room to jam.

That jam comprises pretty much everything after the midpoint of “Vultures,” and though Hatsis and Jones bring a clear-mindedness to the rhythms, I still wish for the purposes of structure that the chorus in the first half could have been revived at the end as a cap for side A. Instead, Toscano leads Dwellers with an extended solo into a slowdown of the central rhythmic figure and that’s how the track concludes. It’s a minor gripe, but in a way, it feels like Dwellers abandon the ideas they presented just a few minutes prior, and they were good ideas, and where they could have imbued “Vulture” with a sense of construction, they choose the admittedly more naturalistic approach of just letting it go. Toscano’s solo rages, so I can’t argue, and as side B opens with highlight cut “Ode to Inversion Layer,” any fix for structure is satisfied in the revival of the record’s earlier swampy drive. Likewise to Toscano’s vocals, which, as he repeats the lines, “I am not here/I’m dust and bones,” remind their most of Layne Staley and give Good Morning Harakiri its most instantly retainable hook. He’s farther back in the mix, and more echoed than on “Secret Revival” or “Black Bird,” which sets the tone for some of the second half of the album’s more psychedelic elements, but still sounds sure of himself in his singing. And where “Vulture” didn’t, “Ode to Inversion Layer” does revive its chorus following a solo break – at least musically – which proves enough to make the track a standout among its surroundings.

“Lightening Ritual” is both the shortest and most straightforward song on Good Morning Harakiri, and reminds some of Tales’ bluesier stretches, however bolstered it is – and it is – by the pulse of Hatsis’ kick. It is as close as Dwellers come to basic riff rock, and the heavy-landing start-stop of the second-half bridge to the final chorus justifies its position as a late-arriving anchor for the album, especially leading into “Old Honey,” which immediately communicates its more psychedelic feel with vibraphone (Hatsis) and warm bass rumbling beneath a moody and subdued vocal from Toscano. A short build ensues that brings slower-paced riffing a sense of spaced-out grandeur the rest of Good Morning Harakiri seemed to want to avoid. It’s well placed where it is, long after proper context is established, so that Toscano’s echoing yells weaving through the mass of guitar and bass seem to be a cosmic ebb and flow coming from the proverbial “somewhere else” to arrive at the ear. Expectedly, “Old Honey” has its jam, following a purposefully repetitive guitar lead with bass-propelled atmospherics that are both dark and engaging. The payoff arrives announced by a ride-cymbal wash and two tom thuds from Hatsis at 7:09, and is potent enough to act as culmination of Good Morning Harakiri as a whole. One imagines the lurching groove piped through a P.A. louder than god as a fitting apex, but even on a stereo the energy and vibe is there as the band hits their final crashes and thumps to their close.

As someone who still revisits Tales periodically to be ensnared in its balance of space and heavy rock, hearing those elements come forward again on “Old Honey” is like a new letter from an old friend, but Dwellers work quickly on Good Morning Harakiri to establish that although Toscano plays a prominent role in both bands, this is a different trio than was Iota, with different goals for sound and a distinct approach. For what it’s worth, I can see greater potential for future development in Dwellers, whose avenues for exploration of the blues, spaced jamming and heavy riffing seem wide open, and if I was going to mourn the loss of Iota, Good Morning Harakiri more or less disembowels that impulse. As Toscano, Jones and Hatsis grow as a unit, doubtless too their sonic palette will expand as well, and given what comes through on these six tracks, that potential isn’t worth any trade that might or might not be on offer. Recommended without reservation both to those who experienced Iota and those who didn’t.

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2 Responses to “Dwellers, Good Morning Harakiri: Rituals of Skin and Bones”

  1. Bill Goodman says:

    I too loved Iota. This Dwellers album is a great followup, Iota or not. I got to listen to the unmastered album recently and was stoked about the final. Album of the year material for sure. One thing as Mr. Toscano pointed out to me, it’s “Dwellers” not “The Dwellers.” I did the same thing.

  2. Cheers Bill, I appreciate the correct. I think it was “The Dwellers” on those listen mixes, and I thought maybe it was like when “Might Could” became “The Might Could.” I’ll take Joey’s word for it though, ha ha.

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