Kowloon Walled City – Piecework

Posted: 10 October 2021 in Albums
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Neurot Recordings / Gilead Media – 8th October 2021

Christopher Nosnibor

Less is more. This is something that few bands appreciate or understand half as well as Kowloon Walled City. And less doesn’t have to mean less intense: if anything, it’s a major factor in the ‘more’ element of the equation. Instead of hitting the listener with hard volume, relentless drumming, and gnarly distortion, Kowloon Walled City distil emotional pain into something simple and direct, and in doing so achieve optimal impact.

Their last album’s crushing weight derived not from its pace or even its volume, but its sense of space. Instead of filling the air with big noise, each chord crashed down hard and rang out into silence. In that space, Singer/guitarist Scott Evans’ vocals conducted pure anguish and blank nihilism. No throaty metal stylisation or posturing, just a kind of shouting – a shout of pain, of psychological torture – the torture of existence.

It’s the space between the sound that they’ve explored in the evolution of their fourth album, Piecework – their first output in six years. Make no mistake: Piecework is fucking heavy. It packs some utterly gut-punching, seismic riffs that drive hard, and when they hit, they’re utterly pummelling. But it’s the bleakness, and the blankness, that’s most affecting, that really hits the hardest. In the first instance, it’s simply so raw, so unprocessed. With the vocals clean and up-front, it’s the humanity that’s at the fore.

Not that there was any fat on Grievances, but with Piecework they pare it right down to the bone, and then scrape away a little more. Whereas most of the songs of its predecessor sat around the five or even six-minute-plus mark, Piecework packs seven songs into around half an hour. In cutting back so hard, the effect if heightened as the grey walls close in tighter, faster, more likely to bring a crushing end. The effect is cumulative, and there are no clear standouts on Piecework, only a sustained slug driven by a low, lumbering bass. It’s a bass that really churns the gut, and it has a physical force.

The production captures this dark, dense force perfectly, conveying a sound that feels live, that feels real. Wish you were there? Hell yes: we all need a bit of fortune, and Piecework is both beautiful and harsh. When they bring it down to nothing but a single note hanging in the ear, I’m reminded of latter-day Earth, and it’s clear that space and time matter.

As the press notes tell us, ‘Evans was dealing with the loss of his father during the writing of the album. He found strength in the women in his life, especially his maternal grandmother, who worked at a shirt factory in Kentucky for 40 years while raising five kids. The album name (and title track) is a nod to her line of work—and her quiet resilience.’ The lyrics are at once abstract and packed with images. There are no specifics, only scenes, and they’re bleak ones, of claustrophobic confined spaces, of deathbeds.

And it’s no criticism that this feels like an album of graft: the rhythm section ploughs on, and on, relentlessly, as if their duty is pure graft, digging, digging, digging. In the same way that early Swans was the sound of punishment, so Piecework is a soundtrack to the brutal reality of production-line capitalism.

The album’s predominantly slow pace is not the sound of rapid mechanisation, but of soul-sapping drudgery, the crushing weight of negative progress. There is no respite, no detours to bathe in moments of human kindness, the idea that for everything, there are glimmers of light and optimism. No, Piecework is an album with no let-up, in the way that Unsane are unrepentant, unremittingly grey in their outlook and execution. It hammers and bludgeons away at the senses and prods hard at the frayed nerve endings, the space and dead air speaking to the emptiness that hits us when the noise stops. Life is short and life is cruel, and Piecework is the perfectly merciless reminder of that.

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