The only thing really subtle about Kowloon Walled City‘s Container Ships is how subtle it is. The tiny bits of melody that makes their way into the guitars of Scott Evans and Jon Howell, or the surprising effect the record — their second behind 2009’s Gambling on the Richter Scale and label debut on Brutal Panda Records — can have on the listener’s mood despite being so outwardly intense and seeming so cerebral in their approach, that pesky tendency to kick a face with a song.
It’s not the kind of thing you generally think of as ambient, but Container Ships has more to it than its surface heaviness. Its seven component tracks run a vinyl-ready 35 minutes and opening argument “The Pressure Keeps Me Alive” winds up somewhere right in the middle of Kowloon Walled City‘s scope of pace. Evans handles vocal duties with a kind of post-hardcore semi-speech, melodic enough when it needs to be and likewise able to turn within a line’s span into an all-out shout. Tonally, they’re more indebted to Godflesh than the Neurosis/Isis sphere of post-metal, but some of those elements are there, particularly on the centerpiece title-track or side B closer “You Don’t Have Cancer,” the two longest cuts at 7:11 and 8:44, respectively. Most of the album moves quicker, pushed ahead by Jeff Fagundes‘ about-t0-fly-apart drumming (spoiler alert: it never flies apart) and Ian Miller‘s thankfully prominent low end righteousness.
Third track “Beef Cattle” owed so much of its thrust to Godflesh‘s “Anthem” that I wanted to see if it also synched up with Jesus Christ Superstar. I couldn’t get it to work, but someone more enterprising might have better luck. Far from being turned off by the clarity of the derivation — that is, not liking the track for how blatantly it reminds me of something else — I mark “Beef Cattle” as one of Container Ships‘ several high points, its familiarity offset by the context of what’s surrounding, whether it’s the fast-paced rhythmic insistence and weighted crashes of “’50s Dad” before or the extended and gracefully executed build of “Container Ships” that follows. Kowloon Walled City don’t stay in one place long enough to be redundant.
Miller‘s tone makes “Cornerstone,” looming large overhead alongside the guitars in the song’s second half, and though one might argue the track is overshadowed by its more memorable companions, “Container Ships” before and the strong hook of “Wrong Side of History” after, effective pacing — just slower than middle, but floating here and there — and a solid linear structure make it less of a stumble than it might otherwise be. Still, “Wrong Side of History,” which builds no less momentum into closer “You Don’t Have Cancer” than “Beef Cattle” did into “Container Ships” to round out Container Ships‘ first half, is a defining point of the album. A late-era Akimbo sense of controlled chaos pervades and Evans‘ vocals calling out raised fists and clenched fingers — not to mention the delivery of those lines — push the song over the side of the hardcore designation without veering musically from their stated course. It’s the best chorus here. I wouldn’t want a whole album of it, but like with “Beef Cattle,” it works within the scope of Kowloon Walled City‘s approach.
They once more bring the proceedings to a crawl with “You Don’t Have Cancer,” wind noise setting a bed for the creeping build the payoff of which ends the album with largesse if not excess of tempo. By the crashes that hit just past the six-minute mark, the final cut on Container Ships is already operating at its peak level. The band don’t so much gradually wind the song down as mostly drop off, leaving just the guitar to riff through one more cycle before the sustain fades and then cuts out. Ultimately, Kowloon Walled City walk a pretty fine line of genre, but they do it with feet that land heavy enough to leave a mark. If you’ve never encountered them before, either on Gambling on the Richter Scale or their splits with Ladder Devils/Fight Amp or Thou, Container Ships should make for a rousing introduction.Tags: Brutal Panda Records, California, Container Ships, Kowloon Walled City, Kowloon Walled City Container Ships, San Francisco