2015 has been an excellent year for new music so far. Both on the softer and the heavier side of the musical spectrum bands have released amazing pieces of art. The eclectics among us often find themselves spread-eagled between this and that release with no one to understand them because their styles differ so much. So let’s help them. There must be common ground when you like two albums, right? Even when they are completely different musicals styles? Let’s move on to Exhibit A: Could two albums be further apart than the peaceful hippie folk of Israel Nash Gripka’s Silver Season and the aggressive metallic hardcore savagery of Utah’s Cult Leader’s new album Lightless Walk? Not at first glance. No, at first glance it does not seem possible, nor would it seem plausible to mention the two bands in one sentence, let alone get (quasi-)scientific about it. The only clear thing they have in common is that they released a stellar record in 2015. And yet, weirder topics have been scholarly ripped apart (remember the necrophiliac gay duck?). And so, championing the musical eclectics in the world I dive into this study with the only scientific tool that my Master Of Arts degree taught me: this is Extreme Compare and Contrast.
I think if you put a hundred people in a room and you’d made them listen to Silver Season first, and then Lightless Walk after, there would not be a single person who could identify a similarity in the music styles other than the fact that they both use the guitar as an instrument and they don’t use electronics. That is, if there is anybody left to evaluate with when the Cult Leader part is over. Israel Nash Gripka is a kind warrior, he tells his naturalistic stories in a way not unfamiliar to Neil Young (and with a similar high nasal pitch). The music itself is slightly more psychedelic, reminiscing Pink Floyd in the same way Jonathan Wilson’s excellent Fanfare did last year. The omnipresent pedal steel gives the album a strong country feel, yet that’s about as far as Silver Season wanders into that territory. It’s a record you can play in any mood and in pretty much any circumstance. You can listen to it carefully and hear a lot, or you could play it carelessly in the background where it will meander like a peaceful little stream. Both experiences are highly recommended.
Cult Leader, the continuation of Utah’s most notorious metallic hardcore band Gaza, sound like they eat hippies for breakfast. This is music that at times hurts while listening to it. Turn it up loud enough and you are probably able to actually torture people with it. Lightless Walk is deeply rooted in hardcore machismo, but gradually when the album unfurls itself you’ll discover unsuspected beauty and depth. Yet it is the kind of beauty that hurts, and the kind of depth that’ll give you vertigo nightmares. If you knew Gaza Lightless Walk will not exactly sound new to you, but it will be the one you were anxiously waiting for, and then some. This might even be the best album Gaza never made.
When you put the two band pictures next to each other you’ll see some clear differences, but looking closely you’ll see even more similarities. Israel Nash himself might have long hair befitting the hippie feel his songs breathe, but he also has some fierce tattoos on his lower arms. The rest of his band members are short haired, bearded, and they look like friendly easy going dudes.
Cult Leader might consist of some friendly and easy going people, but it does not show from the way they’re portrayed. They wear black, and their facial expressions are grim. Their heads are trimmed in the way custom to hardcore punks these days and they don’t look very approachable. However, if those black shirts were traded in for some nice comfy woolen sweaters, and someone would tickle them by surprise just before the photographer says “cheese” I doubt if you could really point out who’s who in both bands.
With their hardcore/punk background in mind one might suspect that Cult Leader are the more political/ideological band when it comes to lyrics. But when analyzing some of their interviews, they have always stressed quite the opposite. Cult Leader vocalist Anthony Lucero has described his words as “lyrical self-mutilation”, and says the songs are more about dealing with personal issues and attacking his (former-) enemies verbally. The music and the lyrics clearly do have a tendency to be misanthropic, in that it throws a lot of hate into a lot of different directions. But always personal, and never dogmatic as some black metal bands tend to get. The generalization about punk/hardcore and their ideologies therefore is not true in the case of Lightless Walk.
How about Israel Nash then, are his songs all about lost love, birds and bees as might be suspected from a singer/songwriter? Wrong again! With “Parlour Song” Nash even wrote the only clearly identifiable political song of these two records. It is a song about the U.S. shootings and gun laws. Nash is not overly clear as to what he thinks should be done about it, but he it’s very obvious that he is fed up when he repeatedly sings “I am tired of the people” and the music swells to a distorted guitar wail with a brilliant solo and the heaviest part of of Silver Season. In fact, it is when Nash sings about being tired of people that the two bands are really closest of seeing eye to eye on a subject. It’s just that this is the only one song about negativity on Silver Season, whereas it’s the basic starting point of everything Cult Leader seems to do. In the end though Israel Nash’s music is mostly about love, as the final words of album closer “The Rag and Bone Man” are “we must love each other”.
When it comes to media coverage and critical acclaim both bands tend to do quite well, but Cult Leader surprisingly tends to get a lot more review and interview opportunities than Israel Nash. Most of the leading metal websites and magazines have praised Lightless Walk, while reviews of Silver Season are much harder to find. For instance, leading music website Pitchfork did review of Lightless Walk and the last Gaza album even ended up in one of their end of year lists, while Israel Nash’s Silver Season nor his previous (and also stellar) album Rain Plans don’t even get a mention. That’s seems terribly unfair, even more because Nash’s guitarist Joey McClellan’s other band Midlake gets a lot of attention from popular media and the two bands have a lot in common. They definitely are of a similar level of quality for sure. Could it be the Americana-phobia of America’s indie scene where American artists like Israel Nash and Jonathan Wilson get great responses and tour audiences in Europe but are struggling in their own country? Who knows? Maybe it is just a matter of time, but it is beyond doubt that Israel Nash Gripka deserves some more attention.
Professionalism / Quality
Perhaps the only aspect in which these two bands align perfectly is their professionality when it comes to their musicianship. The quality control in both camps is extremely thorough, and both push themselves to their limits to challenge themselves both technically and creatively. Cult Leader have made their first full length into a tour de force that makes you struggle through the ferociousness of the first batch of tracks to receive your prize in the atmospherics of “A Good Life” and the epic album closers “How Deep It Runs” and the doomy monolith of title track “Lightless Walk.” When it comes to combining sheer impenetrable aggression with melody, depth and beauty Cult Leader are already challenging Converge to the throne, and Lightless Walk promises even more progression for the future.
Israel Nash’s Silver Season is very similar to Cult Leader in that way that it knows exactly what to say and when to say it. Perhaps even more than on Rain Plans the music is personal and dares to be light and beautiful. The built-up of both albums is perfect and guides the listener to just enough detail that attention stays focused. Where Lightless Walk can be a bit too much to handle at times, Silver Season can be a bit too soothing when the pedal steel has a tendency to lull the listener to sleep. But just at the right time both bands steer the listener back to focus with either a quieter, more accessible track, just the right amount of tempo change, or a spot-on lyric. This is world class quality professional music, and no matter how dehumanized that sounds, it is an important feature of these two entities. They are not fooling around; they know exactly what they are doing.
So musically Cult Leader and Israel Nash are nothing alike, lyrically they hardly cover the same ground although they had a minuscule overlap in the misanthropy section, but they do literally both just look like musicians even though their photographers went for entirely different images. It might even surprise some people that in spite of their rough image and extreme music Cult Leader gets a lot more media coverage than Israel Nash’s a lot more accessible style. That has nothing to do with quality though because as I stated earlier these two bands are professionals with very high standards in everything they do. So has this compare and contrast session been a complete and utter failure with a very predictable and unnecessary outcome? Maybe. But it did sneakily slam two of my personal favorite but totally different albums of the year into one Mission Impossible of a double album review. So there. I hope you enjoyed it as I hope you’ll enjoy both of these albums. Or if you’re a normal person; perhaps just one of them.