Wreck and Reference – Black Cassette
Black Cassette, the debut demo from Wreck and Reference, is most certainly a grower and not a shower. When I first listened to it, I was not especially taken with either the music or the presentation of the Californian duo on their press release. To me, with my many personal prejudices, their music embodied the "hipster metal" stereotype, thanks to their Robert Smith-esque vocalist, self-proclaimed genre of "experimental doom" which I found less than convincing, and MIDI processor player in lieu of a guitarist. Wreck and Reference did not instantly appeal to me, so after one listen I decided to move on.
Yet gradually, I began to listen to the cassette - over and over again. There were moments in the album good enough to keep me coming back to it, even after I’d decided to dismiss it. Perhaps, then, it was not so much a matter of hipsters attempting to usurp metal tropes as it was a mere problem of mislabeling, and my own inability to get past my prejudices.
Wreck and Reference are definitely not so much "experimental doom" as they are what I would define as "post-metal". Once one ceases to place them squarely in that realm of orthodox metal, things become much more interesting.
For me at least, this album seems the very definition of "post-metal". To put this in context, consider other bands to have acquired that label, such as Wolves in the Throne Room and Dark Castle. While they pepper their music with outside influences, and they don’t play the same metal that their forebears did, their music is still very much "metal": loud guitars, acoustic drums, screaming, a general attitude of force or confrontation. Their music still feels metal. Wreck and Reference, by contrast, could be metal or could not be: there are heavy moments, yes, but not necessarily 'heavy' in the sense of being reliant on the distortion of guitars, or any sort of aggression. "A Lament" is able to stay ethereal while still being heavy; were you to add distortion, and with speed as a variable, you’d end up with something along the lines of either Amon Amarth or Crowbar.
Some might argue that heaviness is, by definition, a function of the relative distortion factor of the instruments used. I would argue that it is melody mixed with speed that determines heaviness. There are some chord progressions that simply sound massive, regardless of whether the guitars have any sort of crunch to them. Earth have shown great success in using this trope to evoke the expanse of the American West; with their post-industrial sound, Wreck and Reference are able to use this "quiet kind of heavy" to great effect, in emulating the emptiness and the resurgence of hope present in urban decay.
And, in fact, some portions of Black Cassette do contain a degree of distortion heaviness: "Desire, Ether" has that distinctive Swans/Big Black "thud" dirge to it, like the crunch of heavy industrial machinery, and plods along at a pace befitting a conventional doom band (though still with the Cure vocals). "Evening Redness" does this too, taking jangly tremolo riffs reminiscent of Pelican, and giving them steroids. It's a shame that the song ends awkwardly, with a coda which is probably supposed to sound cabaret-like and creepy, but which just comes across as cartoonish.
As this release is but a demo, it will be interesting to see where Wreck and Reference go from here. On the one hand, their songs are melodic and well-written enough that they could end up making a truly great LP: good melodies, creativity in arrangement, and brevity are present on this demo, and could well be expanded upon. On the other hand, Wreck and Reference could be seen as a gimmick band due to their use of a processor instead of a guitarist (seemingly for no other reason than to say "hey, look at us, we’re doing heavy music without a guitarist!"), and some parts of their songs feel forced or trite, which leads one to fear that any emphasis on these parts would place the band firmly in the realm of smug self-parody. Will they be able, in future, to play down the uninteresting elements, and keep those factors which make their demo so catchy? One hopes so. Until then, though, the Black Cassette is an interesting, engaging release, from a band on the periphery of something interesting, both artistically and aesthetically.
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