My Listening Week: Cursetheknife, Dead Heat, Madball, Blood Estate

On "heavy shoegaze" exhaustion, crossover thrash that works, and finally loving a Madball record.

My Listening Week: Cursetheknife, Dead Heat, Madball, Blood Estate

Hello readers. This week I listened to almost every single Sonic Youth record while I read along to Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth. I own most of their albums on vinyl, so they didn't show up in the above grid (which is hooked up to my Spotify, for those who don't know), but that was the band who took up the majority of my listening time this week. The book ruled and basically all of their albums rule, so it was a fun exercise to down them chronologically and really take in the unparalleled arc of one of the best bands ever.

I also listened to some other shit, though, and I felt like writing about four of those albums below.

Dead Heat - Endless Torment

I slept on this EP when it dropped a few months back. I don't know why because Dead Heat's 2021 LP, World at War, was one of my favorite hardcore releases of that year. They're from California but play a style of crossover thrash that's more indebted to the New York sound than shit like Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies. Their NYHC influences shine through even brighter on Endless Torment, where the band dribble in a few "clean" singing parts that remind me of bands like Ekulu and Best Wishes-era Cro-Mags.

I feel like every time I sit down to write about a crossover thrash band I love, I end up regurgitating the same refrain: "There's a flood of this stuff right now, but [insert band] does it particularly well." But I think it's true! There aren't many hardcore micro-lanes that aren't overflowing with traffic at this busy moment in time, and it seems like there's a new crossover band people are hyping up every few months. A couple years ago I thought Enforced were the best band going in this lane, and last year Fugitive snatched the crown. Earlier this year I spent a couple weeks fawning over that band Existence, and right now it seems like everyone's super gung-ho about New World Man, who I personally find genuinely unlistenable (the vocals....suck, man).

But every time I think I'm ready to throw up my arms and just listen to Sepultura or Power Trip to get my riff-fix, some band like Dead Heat come along and reinvigorate my faith in the form. The riffage on these songs are great, but I love that Dead Heat aren't afraid to put actual mosh parts in there, not just swing-y thrash sections for headbanging. I think that's a balance their one-time split-mates Mindforce strike with a similar level of finesse, but Dead Heat's sound is more muscular and brutish than Mindforce's. "Eyes of the Real" and "Endless Torment" both conclude with bone-snapping breakdowns that make me want to start throwing shit off my desk and howl like a baboon. I'll never again make the mistake of sleeping on a Dead Heat project.

Cursetheknife - There's a Place I Can Rest

Sometime last year, I can't quite pinpoint when, I felt like a switch flipped in my brain and I no longer had any interest in new bands doing "heavy shoegaze." The sheer volume of acts making power-chordy, grungey, bassy, headbangable shoegaze in the vein of Nothing, Hum, Narrow Head, etc. is genuinely mind-blowing to me. Every playlist of new shoegaze bands that I stumble across on Spotify is littered with songs that sound like forgettable local openers for a Cloakroom show. In America at least, it's by far the most popular and prolific flavor of the moment. That style of shoegaze was refreshingly burly sounding when Nothing reinvigorated it 10 years ago, but at this point it sounds mind-numbingly stale to my ears — and I'm someone who couldn't get enough of that thing from 2018 through 2020.

All that is to say that I was nervous I wouldn't like the new Cursetheknife record before I heard a single note of it. The Oklahoma City band came onto my radar with their 2021 compilation LP, Thank You For Being Here, which very much slots into the "heavy shoegaze" idiom with its gale-force guitar surges outfitted with wreathes of reverb and FFO Hum vocal whisper-croaks. I liked a good number of songs from that collection and thought Cursetheknife were at least doing the style so proficiently well that I couldn't really dock them points for sounding like a sum of their influences. But if their new record, There's a Place I Can Rest, leaned heavy on the aforementioned qualities, I just wouldn't have been interested.

Fortunately, it doesn't. The band have found a shrewd way to unhitch themselves from the heavy shoegaze wagon without totally reinventing their sound. In the process, they've revealed themselves to be much stronger, more dynamic songwriters than I initially thought. Tracks like the woodsy "Right Back Into Place" and the lurching "Cost of Living" are plodding slowcore gems dolloped with dustings of high-pitched, effected guitar notes that sparkle amidst their musty backdrops. "Big Ole House" — with its chopped-up drum clacks, bumpy bassline andweepy tears of slide guitar — totally snuffs out Cursetheknife's big riffs and predictable loud/soft explosions, presenting a tastefully minimal side of themselves that sounds more like their indie-rock-leaning contemporaries in Slow Pulp and Gaadge than their scene peers in Glare or Trauma Ray.

There're still heavy moments on here. The big, Deftonesy riff that opens lead single "The Gift" made me cringe when it came bursting in, Kool-Aid Man-like, after the cozy build of "Right Back Into Place." I just think that specific type of sound is rote right now, but they make it sound a bit more interesting on "Thrall" by at least tossing in a dissonant guitar solo. I'm much more impressed by a song like "Reach," which has the intensity of their earlier stuff but channels it through an aching slowcore tempo, gradually picking up more distortion as it rolls along like a shoegaze Katamari ball.

There's gotta be at most one more year, max, before the share value of heavy shoegaze starts declining as people finally get bored and the genre's zeitgeist mutates yet again. A lot of current bands aren't going to survive that sonic market crash, but I'm glad to hear that Cursetheknife have the creative ability to weather the storm.

Blood Estate - Floodgate

Speaking of shoegaze that doesn't suck, I started listening to this band Blood Estate this week and they fucking rule. The project bills itself on Bandcamp as "a mixture of shoegaze, slowcore, and ambient rock," and sometimes a vague oversimplification is really the best way to describe something. Their 2022 LP, Floodgate, is packed with two-minute nuggets of psychy slowcore that sound like the mid-point between Duster, Elvis Depressedly and Midwife. It's as droney and nebulously rhythmic as it is nodding, and the vocals, while buried deep in the mix, tool along pleasant little melodic pathways. There seems to be a whole scene of bedroom-built ambient slowcore emerging right now, and as an ailment to my exhaustion of heavy shoegaze, I'm all here for stuff like Blood Estate and hold.

Madball - Demonstrating My Style

I'm going to be seeing Madball for the first time in a couple weeks, so I spent some time listening to Demonstrating My Style and Set It Off this week. Madball are a band I feel like I should have more of a relationship with than I actually do. They were one of the first Real Hardcore bands I became aware of in high-school, right alongside acts like Hatebreed, Terror and Trapped Under Ice. I probably didn't actually listen to them in a real way until I was 20, when I started getting really into hardcore and wanted to play catch-up with some of the greats.

As I got into the genre while going to school in Albany, NY, Madball were a shirt band around the scene. I remember kids who, like me, made the transition from metalcore to hardcore once they hit their upper teens/early 20s, and rocking a Madball tee or hoodie was a great way to signal your bona fides. To say, "Don't worry, I like real-deal hardcore, not that Warped Tour shit." The style of hardcore Madball are credited with pioneering was my bread and butter, but what puzzled me about the band is how they didn't actually sound very much like any of the moshy hardcore bands I was listening to. Sure, I could hear a bit of their bouncy grooves in Cruel Hand and early Turnstile, and Freddy Cricien's hip-hop-ish delivery sounded of a piece with how Justice Tripp hollered in Trapped Under Ice.

But Set It Off didn't have mosh parts that rumbled the earth like Suburban Scum. Their music didn't have the window-smashing force of Incendiary's Cost of Living. They basically sounded like a punk band compared to Code Orange's I Am King. That was the hardcore climate I was coming into at the time, and Madball sounded primitive and brittle compared to all those bands, even though they had the undying respect of anyone I knew who considered themselves a hardcore kid.

Over the years, I'd go back to Set It Off from time to time to try and crack it. To try and glean the same visceral excitement from it that I got from other NYHC bands who followed in their footsteps. I still don't think I've had that magical, "I get it," moment while listening to Set It Off, even though I now have an academic understanding of what makes Madball important and where they fit in the genre's lineage. But this week, I decided to listen to Demonstrating My Style, their second album, for the first time, and that record instantly clicked with me.

Musically, it's not all that different, but like so much hardcore, it's the subtle details the make all the difference. The production is much chunkier and the guitar parts nastier than the ones on Set It Off, which sounds thin and muddy (and not in the way so much Eighties hardcore sounds charmingly thin and muddy) compared to a lot of records from its era. Also, Cricien's vocals on that record are garbled and muffled. I know he's yelling seriously hard-core shit about life in the rough parts of NYC, but I've always struggled to make out his lyrics on that record, which has been another barrier to entry.

Demonstrating My Style is a much more "professional" sounding hardcore record. A song like "Unity" has the chanty, anthemic sheen of the songs on Sick Of It All's Scratch the Surface — which came out the same year as Set It Off but sounded years ahead production-wise. Maybe Set It Off is a grittier record, and I know there's an ineffable magic in those songs that's granted them access to the NYHC hall of fame. I think one day, like so much 1980s hardcore that didn't click with me for years until it suddenly made so much sense, I'll get there with Set It Off. But right now, Demonstrating My Style is the Madball record I always wanted to hear in Set It Off. Sometimes it just be like that.