Album Review: -(16)-, Into Dust

16 into dust

The standout line, “You can live but you can’t stay here,” from opening track and rightly-chosen lead single “Misfortune Teller” is analogous for what’s at root in the storytelling of 16‘s Into Dust. It is a cleverly worded threat of death, laid out from the point of view of the rentier class to the tenant class (“you can live” means “I will let you live because I have the power and choice to not”), specifically someone being evicted from their home with no place else to go. Into Dust, released in continuing accord with Relapse Records, follows the long-running Los Angeles/San Diego sludge metallers’ 2020 outing, Dream Squasher (review here), and brings them deeper into the realities of this wretched, surreal and not-yet-half-over decade.

While it’s not necessarily a concept album in terms of ‘Main Character goes to place and does a thing’ plotlines, the lyrics and guitar, bass, drums and, in the case of closer “Born on a Barstool,” sax and electric piano, are united by this perspective in a way that feels more focused perhaps than 16‘s social commentary has been in the past. And whether it’s the living-through-it “Dead Eyes” and “Null and Eternal Void,” or “The Floor Wins,” which if it is using vertigo as a metaphor is well justified in so doing and, if not, is the first sludge tune I’ve ever heard to inadvertently tackle the crisis of prescription drug costs, or the debt in “Never Paid Back,” the sexual violence in “Dirt in Your Mouth,” or sheer hopelessness in “Born on a Bar Stool,” there is no shortage of storytelling happening across the album’s 12 tracks and 44 minutes, with vocalist/guitarist Bobby Ferry chugging out trademark post-hardcore/metal largesse as a suitably crushing, downtrodden backdrop.

Lead guitarist Alex Shuster doubles as producer for the second time, with engineering by Jeff Forrest — who has worked with the band at least in a recording capacity if not also mixing since their 1993 debut, Curves That Kick (discussed here) — and the combination of the two results in a dynamic that allows for the punkish rush of side B leadoff “Lane Splitter” and hooks like that of the earlier “Ash in the Hourglass,” which feel particularly bold in the layering of Ferry‘s clean and harsh vocals and yet don’t come across as overblown. The tracks are by and large short, sharp and pummeling, but with the reach-down-into-this-abyss bass work of Barney Firks and the song-first drumming of Dion Thurman — who thuds out behind the knuckledragger riff of “Dead Eyes” and turns around to groove in the hook of “Scrape the Rocks” with perfect (and that’s not a word I use lightly; he nails it) tempo and positioning, not trying to take over the chorus, but an active participant in it bolstering the entirety — as unified as the dynamic may be around anger, there is nonetheless a dynamic being laid out.

It is one that has developed over the course of the years since 16 relaunched with 2009’s Bridges to Burn, but as their ninth long-player, Into Dust marks a pivotal transition for 16 in being the first album they’ve done with Ferry on lead vocals, the band having parted ways with founding frontman Cris Jerue since Dream Squasher was released. That’s not an insignificant change, but Ferry has contributed vocals intermittently throughout the band’s tenure and seems well at home at the head of the charge here, be it the spit-laced initial snarls of “Misfortune Teller” or the barking shouts that top the veer-into-country-rock-strum that makes the penultimate “Dressed Up to Get Messed Up” even sleazier, or the cleaner singing that makes “Never Paid Back” and “Dirt in Your Mouth” complement each other so well.

“Misfortune Teller,” “Dead Eyes” and “Ash in the Hourglass” lay out an initial salvo as laced with brutalist angles as with memorable choruses — the latter also has a highlight solo from Shuster — and are somewhat separated from the rest of the album by the atmospheric interlude “The Deep,” which is only 1:29, but a first in the band’s 31-year history and notable for that as well as the hypnotic effect ahead of the slam-chug of “Scrape the Rocks,” which follows, backing its clean-sung verse with some of Into Dust‘s hardest hitting fare. “Null and Eternal Void” is more uptempo, but still miserable, and “The Floor Wins” is both a high point for the album as a whole and a manifestation of the band Crowbar have been working toward being since Kirk Windstein found out Jamey from Hatebreed was a fan.

16 (Photo by Chad Kelco)

“The Floor Wins” caps side A with hook and hammer, riding its chorus unto final stomps with deceptive poise that makes low times into high art while also setting up the immediate, intense sprint that is “Lane Splitter.” As “Never Paid Back” and “Dirt in Your Mouth” roll out their companioning nod, the former a little slower, the latter a little more disgusted, momentum is on 16‘s side, and “Dressed Up to Get Messed Up” and “Born on a Barstool” also seem to be paired together for their relative branching out from the band’s root style. “Dressed Up to Get Messed Up” brings together lines like, “I wanna call you baby/I wanna make you sing,” with fervent self-loathing, and that flash of twang in its second half is a welcome bit of fuckall stuck late at the record, a surprise shift perhaps intended in part to hint that there’s still more ground to cover, which “Born on a Barstool” does quickly in its spoken word intro, as a brooding Ferry is backed by the aforementioned electric piano (by Peter Kovach) and sax (Gabriel Sundy) before the song itself takes hold in suitably explosive fashion.

The closer is no less pivotal than the opener to understanding who 16 are at this point. More than three decades on from their start, they are willing to experiment — that’s not to say “screw with” — their sound in new ways in a way not every band would be by their ninth album, and with backing vocals by Elisa Gonzales, “Born on a Barstool” serves as a culmination of the hopelessness(es) and miseries conveyed throughout Into Dust, turning the destructiveness of being even emotionally let alone literally beat down by simply trying to get through one’s day, support one’s family, exist under capitalism into — what else? — a depressive drinking song. The sax returns to bookend before the last growl and crash that end the song/record, and the experiment feels like more than a novelty for the sense of place in an urban setting that comes through. This is the American city and an American experience of giving up. If “Scrape the Rocks” was an existential running aground, “Born on a Barstool” is the ship actually sinking.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more realistic ending to Into Dust, or one that summarizes so much about 16 while emphasizing their commitment to expand their own sound and take on sludge metal. They remain defined by shove and bludgeon, but have evolved into a different and farther-reaching band than they were. I don’t know if that’s middle age settling in — some awfully moshy vibes here for that to be the case — or just boredom at play or what, but it works for them, and the cohesion that results in their songwriting makes them a stronger outfit on the whole. It’s not chaos and it’s not meant to be. Into Dust is poignant and caustic, melodic and harsh, but most of all it is a showcase of who 16 are right now and the rare ability shown in their craft to convey defeat without actually sounding beaten.

-(16)-, “Lane Splitter” official video

-(16)-, “Scrape the Rocks” official video

-(16)-, “Misfortune Teller” official video

16, Into Dust (2022)

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