Harvey Milk

Life...the Best Game In Town

(Hydra Head; 2008)

By Clayton Purdom | 24 September 2008

I’d like to issue for review the term “stoner metal”—proposing in its stead that this term be applied to either all metal from this point on, from esoteric power ambient through esoteric power electronics, from stoopid Sleep to stupid Sword, or nothing at all. I’m long done with pot-as-music-listening-aid but I realize intrinsically the value of this drug with this music, sedative though it may be. But let’s quit acting like some metal is for stoners and others is less so. Even when we find ourselves like moshing and throwing up bullhorns (world: Skeletonwitch) we find ourselves doing so if not with a wink with an excited titter of release. And a bowl in the alley after the show may only serve to enhance these titters toward our ringing ears. Mayn’t it.

If nothing else—and I’m thinking: yeah, nothing else—pot makes shit funny. And even at its most serious metal is defined by wit, like when Burzum called your bluff and actually killed someone in an act of delicious ribaldry (also murder). But here is the precipice upon which this music sits in 2008: while metal as stoner joke is an increasingly common line to walk (i.e. Atreyu) it’s also an increasingly difficult line to walk well (i.e. Atreyu). Sludging and thrashing and dooming are only kind of funny; beneath it must lie some greater wit than these mere postures. This year’s trashiest indie-pop-metal success, Torche’s Meanderthal, strikes every definitive pose but dares to remain straight-faced, avoiding becoming the Sword but also producing an album of consummate safety. Safe like Jack Johnson.

I hesitate to call this violent wit silliness when so often the results can be astonishing, but in some hands silliness is exactly what’s employed. And in the right hands, it can be a weapon of remarkable strength. Sludge-metal fogies Harvey Milk, ahoy, strike with rapier precision against metal’s often insular self-awareness, producing dangerous, idealogically tough music that revels in the collision of these tectonic plates: utter artistic sincerity (read: heaviness) and the loopiest of punchlines. They do so with an anti-intellectualism so intense it counts as the opposite, a trait in common with little else among the hyphenated genre delineations maundered above. Life…the Best Game in Town plays among the seismic rubble of ideas last touched by last year’s best album, Future of the Left’s Curses.

What of Life recalls Curses isn’t sonic: here we have the Butthole Surfers and Earth, there we had bastardized Albini rawk and something like mall-punk. No, I’m harping on about Curses a year later because both records favor the joke over the substance with an insistence that congeals, sorta: antisubstance as substance. Unlike Daniel Plainview fulfilling his film’s title and announcing to the audience with a flourish, “I’m finished!,” the punchlines here mean nothing, cast no clearer light on the proceedings. Curses and Life are both records by, for, and about their surfaces, composed of despair, empathy, and (yes) pissheaded blurting humor. Records that balk at attempts for deeper discourse. Death of the author, and all that. “Colin is a pussy.” Cue Looney Toons riff.

Thus, “Motown” is called “Motown” not because it is about Motown or Detroit but because in its big melodic chug it recalls, kinda, Motown, or at least recalls it moreso than most Harvey Milk tracks do. Accordingly, “Barnburner” is a barnburner. The band is tautological because it can be, because songs equal themselves because songs are just songs. It’s a slippy bit of rhetoric that could quickly get old (I hated thinking that last sentence), which is why the wit with which its implemented is so refreshing. This is devoutly non-academic music. Witness the way the naked, brutish opening track devolves into VU punning and a snakey Beatles riff, a half-assed “Day in the Life” piano pound arriving cartoonishly unimpressive. Or check the valedictory guitar flourishes of “Roses,” which alone pretty much one-up that entire Torche album. Or the way in the album’s final seconds it squares up a fist to punch you in the face with its point.

Or the way that from an album comprised mostly of slow-motion guitar sludge agony a line is plucked as title that seems quoted from your uncle with a slap on the knee and an implied “champ” while fishing somewhere off the coast of Florida, pale reds and blues and maybe a small-mouth bass bites but mostly just good talking, man to man. This record is about that uncle’s drinking problem. It is a precision strike against those moments and that manner of living, that type of communication, those types of dreams; this record stretches stomach-wrenchingly thin its intent and your conceptions of that intent and then wraps it asphyxiatingly around your face. It is an expert class in comedy that draws no laughs but (one feels a tingle and a drip) some slow blood from the spine. It could be deeper and wilder, sonically; it could rock the bespectacled mosh pit at the Boris show. It chooses not to.

:: myspace.com/harveymilk