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Slow Mass - On Watch Music Album Reviews

Slow Mass - On Watch Music Album Reviews

The debut from the Chicago post-hardcore group revels in playing with teeth-gritting tension and dynamics, defining their sound by its restraint as much as its rage.

There’s only a brief glimpse of true, ear-curdling ugliness on Slow Mass’ debut album On Watch. Picture someone rushing off to work after sleeping through their alarm, and five minutes into their drive, paralyzed with fear: “Did I forget my phone? Is the oven on? Am I wearing two different socks?” It’s like this as Dave Collis gets cut off between notes while retuning his guitar prior to “Suburban Yellow.” There’s a sense of resolution as Slow Mass pick things up, but there’s still the stress of feeling something similar the day before and the day after this. Its nagging, persistent chorus is as if Collis and singer Mercedes Webb are roleplaying Jack Torrance in a Slack chat: “There’s nothing like getting up before dawn to start wasting your life.” All work, no play—On Watch trades in that kind of misery, the kind where you gotta work to be this miserable.

The Chicago quartet proudly tout “no shortcuts” as the operating principle on their long-gestating debut—whatever came easiest was just as quickly dispatched until they were “ten moves away from [our] initial instinct.” This is an artistically admirable method that runs the risk of causing a post-hardcore band to go against their audience’s interests, and thus their own—too much AP Calc, not enough phys ed. Slow Mass know the value of fast-twitch violence and also the impact of frontloading it—“Gray Havens” and “Schemes” work in debilitating, disorienting dynamics, reeling from their introductory power drill riffs. And if the screamo-adjacent “E.D.” and “Like Dead Skin” are the result of persistent counterprogramming, Slow Mass’ initial instinct must’ve been something closer to Napalm Death’s “You Suffer.” Both function as necessary release valves—Slow Mass spend most of On Watch in teeth-gritting tension, defined by its restraint as much as its rage.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a post-hardcore album as quiet as On Watch. While Slow Mass occasionally honor the post-everything experimentations of their city (check the credits to see the flute flutters of “Tunnel Vision Quest” are sampled from Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois), the stereo-panned drummers on “The Author” crystallize the prevailing tone of On Watch: when Collis and Webb harmonize, it’s uncannily like hearing slow-core greats Low covering Fugazi’s The Argument in its entirety (or vice versa).

Nearly everything here can evoke similarly breathtaking comparisons from the past 25 years of aggressive indie rock, but part of that is due to Slow Mass not revealing much about themselves beyond their process. In the video for “Blocks,” producer Neil Strauch throws on the vinyl and sits motionless for four minutes, eventually throwing it into the trash—a “Portlandia” gag via Drag City. But there’s a kernel of truth in this video, as the lyrics of On Watch are just as austere and rarely leave a deep impression.

Slow Mass are a photo negative of the fourth-wave emo bands with whom they share stages and contributors—Strauch has engineered numerous projects from Tim Kinsella, while former drummer Josh Sparks lent On Watch the same nimble, stutter-stepping beats once provided to Into It. Over It. before taking a gig with Minus the Bear, whose looping harmonics serve as a comparative point for the “On Watch” interludes. The momentous, overwhelming choruses of “Suburban Yellow” and “Blocks” share that wave’s most potent communal and cathartic stylistic aspects, the accomplishment felt when a half-dozen people finally push a pickup out of a mudhole. If it isn’t joy, it’s at least the camaraderie when misery finds company.

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