Hardcore, as originally conceived, was a singles genre. Bands wrote songs short enough that they could fit six or eight of them on one 7″, compressing their ideas into tiny and potent bursts of rage. Black Flag and Minor Threat were underground legends by the time they both released full-length albums. Black Flag managed to build a whole independent touring circuit and go through three different singers by the time they settled down long enough to get into LP mode. Hardcore has grown in a million ways over the decades, but you could argue that it still works best in quick, compact sprays. There have been dozens of classic hardcore albums, and yet the question of how to keep that music interesting — to keep the fury and speed and intensity going — over the course of a full album remains a real problem. It’s a problem with a lot of solutions, but there’s a reason why many of today’s best hardcore albums are still only 15 or 20 minutes long. To make a hardcore album work, you need to figure some things out. Well, Jesus Piece figured some things out.
Jesus Piece, from Philadelphia, have been building up a reputation for a few years through live shows and through singles and EPs. Their records gave off an all-consuming, flattening sense of animosity, like they hated everything and everyone. Their version of metal-infused beatdown hardcore was slow and brutal and deeply satisfying on some dark visceral level. They wrote riffs that could suffocate you with their immensity. It ruled, and yet it was hard to see how it could be sustainable over the course of a full-length. But they fucking did it. They pulled it off.
Only Self, the first Jesus Piece album, skimps out on absolutely none of what made their early EPs so intriguing. It is heavy, and it never lets up even in the brief moments when it quiets down. Where the band’s early work was relatively lo-fi, Only Self sounds grand and widescreen, with production from Weekend Nachos guitarist Andy Nelson and mastering from Nails/Integrity collaborator Brad Boatright. These are people who know heavy music, who understand how to make it sound huge and epic without losing any of its gut-crunch force. And Jesus Piece use every weapon available to them, from choral moans to samples of death-row activist Mumia Abu-Jamal philosophizing. Only Self isn’t just a half-hour of blastbeat tantrums.
And yet the blastbeat-tantrum parts of the record are still pretty amazing. Jesus Piece play with purpose and intention, and at their best, they’ve got the power to make you feel as knocked-around as a sapling in a hurricane. Jesus Piece have two singers, but this isn’t a situation where one does the gale-force screaming and the other sings discernible, melodic words. Instead, both singers specialize in burst-vein growling; they just do it in two different pitches. And the band has an innate sense of when to launch from one blood-gargling riff into the next. Close your eyes during any of the slow mosh-part breakdowns and you can practically see a sweaty club descending into violent pandemonium.
This isn’t hardcore for hardcore’s sake, either. They aren’t screaming about scene unity. “Workhorse” is about the mindless drudgery of wage slavery, a topic that honestly demands the sort of roiling rage that only music like this can possibly convey: “Wake! Work! Break! Suffer!” Some of the lyrics come weighed down with a very metal sense of self-serious grandiosity: “No god will cause me pain / For I harbor no beliefs.” But those sentiments are sincere — sincere enough that “Punish,” a song about visualizing yourself strangling someone to death, might give you a little pause. But while that song has no specified target, the fire-eyed opener “Lucid” totally does: “A mindless clown at the helm of it all / This will be our downfall.” Jesus Piece are a band led by a person of color in the year of our lord 2018. No points for figuring out who the mindless clown is.
Toward the end of Only Self, there are two songs where the band opens up and really shows what they can do. “I” is a tense and haunted ambient instrumental, one that builds up all its energy toward something. And “II” is what it’s building up to: a howling doom-metal bruiser that inches toward the grandeur of prime Neurosis. Throughout the album, there are moments — tangled-guitar interludes, tension-buildup drones — that hint at Jesus Piece’s dynamic range. “I” and “II” are where the band makes good on all that promise. And when “II” fades out and the band once again launches into its fast, thunderous growls on the album-closing “Oppressor,” you feel like you’ve been taken on a ride. Only Self feels like the beginning of something, a first chapter in an incredibly heavy epic novel. But even if the band never does another thing, they’ve already given us an album that’ll make you feel like you can break toilet-tank lids over your own forehead.
Only Self is out 8/24 on Southern Lord.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Blood Orange’s thoughtful, layered, gorgeous Negro Swan.
• Nothing’s muscular shoegazer Dance On The Blacktop.
• Interpol’s reliably gloomy and atmospheric Marauder.
• Whitney Ballen’s incisive debut You’re A Shooting Star, I’m A Sinking Ship.
• Former Majical Cloudz member Devon Welsh’s solo debut Dream Songs.
• Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood’s brooding collaboration With Animals.
• The Lemon Twigs’ whimsical psych-popper Go To School.
• Baked’s hazy rocker II.
• Steady Holiday’s dreamy, atmospheric Nobody’s Watching.
• Neil and Liam Finn’s father/son team-up Lightsleeper.
• Parquet Courts side project Maxband’s debut Perfect Strangers.
• Candi Staton’s old-school soul wailer Unstoppable.
• White Denim’s frill-free rocker Performance.
• Justice’s live album Woman Worldwide.
• Third Eye Blind’s all-covers EP Thanks For Everything.
• Ultra Beauty’s self-titled EP.