[Click play above to hear the premiere of “Let’s Scare Death to Death” from Black Black Black’s Altered States of Death and Grace. Album is out March 25 and they play Saint Vitus Bar in Brooklyn on March 12 with STATS and Craw for the latter’s reunion show.]
Its title does a lot of work. More than you might think at first. Brooklynite four-piece Black Black Black made their self-titled debut (review here) in 2013 via Aqualamb Records, and their second full-length, Altered States of Death and Grace follows suit in a jagged aesthetic somewhere between noise, sludge and heavy rock, but is a more richly thematic work across its span, and, again, a lot of the considerable ground it covers can be glimpsed in the title. To parse it out: “Altered states” refers to a running lyrical theme of medication, which starts with opener “Zoloft Manual” and continues in “Lloyd Needs Meds,” “Let’s Scare Death to Death” and “Jessup Jessup Jessup,” while “death” shows up in many of the tracks as well.
The “grace” portion of the album’s name would seem to be more of an aspirational perspective — what all this emotional struggle and wrangling is pushing toward — but there is a certain amount of bliss that arrives in the wash of Jacob Cox‘s guitar that rounds out closer “When Dying’s Done,” also the longest track of the included 10 at over eight minutes. Most of the rest of Altered States of Death and Grace happens in fits and starts, purposefully disjointed for effect between cuts like “Lloyd Needs Meds” and “Let’s Bloodlet” — which boasts one of two guest appearances by Unsane‘s Dave Curran alongside Black Black Black‘s vocalist, Jason Alexander Byers, who, like Cox, is a former member of underrated late-’90s/early-aughts post-hardcore outfit Disengage — but often pushing beyond noise rock in a way that unites the material instrumentally much as the lyrical thematic draws out an overarching point of view, a single mindset, as though all the songs were written in a sole, deeply manic afternoon.
Whether or not they were, of course, I don’t know. I’d guess not, if only for the breadth that Byers, Cox, bassist Johnathan Swafford and drummer Jeff Ottenbacher — who one might be tempted to call a “secret weapon” were his snare not punching you in the face — cover across Altered States of Death and Grace, between the spacious post-punk swagger of “Zoloft Manual,” which also marks an appearance from Curran in its open, handclap-inclusive chorus, the subsequent “I Got Scabies,” maddeningly catchy and loaded with crunch, and “Lloyd Needs Meds,” which picks up a semi-psychedelic thread from the first record and explores it efficiently, keeping an underlying sense of threat thanks to the rhythmic sharpening of knives that, indeed, runs through the whole track. These three make an opening salvo that’s relatively short — the whole album is done in 33 minutes and eight of that goes to “When Dying’s Done” — but covers a deceptively wide range with little to no fanfare or allowance for digestion.
A result, then, is that multiple listens lead to better appreciation, and that’s true of the record in its entirety, as the all-thrust “Let’s Bloodlet” counts in on Ottenbacher‘s snare and enacts a first minute of very, very New York aggression before its second half establishes its hook, “Bloodlet, until you’re blue/Bloodlet, you’re turning blue,” and builds en route to an increasingly noisy finale. What I suspect is the side A closer — also the longest track other than the finale, though only about half as long at 4:13 — “Exorcist Everything” signals its malevolence with an intro of plus-sized drums before a brooding couple lines from Byers explodes into an assault worthy of fellow Brooklyn dwellers Kings Destroy or, from the other side of the planet, New Zealand’s Beastwars, lurching and sludged-out, but coherent as well in its purpose. The drums turn out to be the foundation for loud/quiet tradeoffs and they carry the feedback-topped progression through to its finish, always keeping the threat that the song might burst to life again, even as it fades out we hear some conversation in the studio.
Reviving the forward push, “Let’s Scare Death to Death” would also seem to offer a hint toward “grace” as applies to the album’s title. Its lyric a somewhat sardonic view of touring life — “Moron on medication/Microphone in hand/How many souls can we cram into a passenger van?” — it’s a quick two-minute run that feeds complementary into the opening of “Jessup Jessup Jessup” and sets up the fluid back half of the album, shorter on the whole en route to “When Dying’s Done,” but offering a different take in each song as it goes, whether that’s the catchy repetitions of the title in the hook of “Jessup Jessup Jessup” or the minute-plus thrust of “Every Dentist Does,” a shorter, punkier companion piece for “Let’s Bloodlet,” or “Slowly Severed,” which starts with gasping breaths into a shout, but unfolds the most satisfying melody of Altered States of Death and Grace. Byers moves into and out of harmony and time with guest vocalist Jesse Quattro such that in combination with the nod and chug of the riff in its verses, the song makes for a singularly resonant impression, asking “What are we still doing in the dark?” as it closes out.
There’s something of a surprising shuffle to the beginning stretch of “When Dying’s Done,” a turn that Black Black Black seem to have saved for last, and a deeper-feeling mix gives them plenty of work to set up the already-noted wash of guitar to come. A couple relatively subdued verses play out smoothly over the chug and a section of swirling squibblies signals the shift into the instrumental finale, the drums sprinting back and forth before locking in a swinging progression that pulls itself apart measure by measure until about four and a half minutes in, the remaining time given to waves of drone and noise that cascade and end Altered States of Death and Grace with one last charge into the unknown. That territory suits Black Black Black as well as do their noisier, more furious stretches, and it’s ultimately in how well they play the one off the other, as well as in the thematic development, that the album finds its identity and its growth from the debut, its cerebral engagement working with a correspondingly primal underpinning. I’m not sure if Black Black Black ever find the grace they’re reaching for, but their journey through death and altered states finds them unflinching in their resolve to get there.Altered States of Death and Grace, Aqualamb Records, Black Black Black, Black Black Black Altered States of Death and Grace, Brooklyn, New York