One of the most frightening words a metal fan can hear is "art" when it's used as a descriptor for a band. Art implies high class, intelligence and a swapping of authentic rage for the experimental and/or ridiculous. Art should, theoretically, have nothing to do with metal. When it does manage to insert itself into metallic affairs, you get boring "thought" pieces like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Liturgy, or the Black Angels. And once you reach that point, metal no longer has anything to do with rejecting society, and everything to do with, like, "the idea" of, like, rejecting society. You dig, mannn?
So, of course, there is cause to worry when the Body's All the Waters of the Earth Shall Turn to Blood opens with an a cappella choral sample that is seven minutes long. Yeah. You read that right. Before you hear the most bone-crushing duo in the entire world, you have to sit through seven minutes of traditional European a cappella choral music. But, as many a bumper sticker since 1994 has said, Fear No Art. Because the wait is most definitely worth it.
For those not "in the know" (a.k.a, "What do you mean you 'don't read' the New York Times Weekend Arts section and/or Pitchfork Media?"), the Body are a rotund duo that hails from just outside of Providence, R.I. One guy plays guitar; the other screams and drums furiously. From all their promo pics, I'd guess that they spend their days growing their beards while sitting in rocking chairs and playing with their gigantic collection of guns. How. Fucking. Metal. All the Waters is the pair's second full-length, and in the name of honest reviewing, I will admit that I have not heard anything else the band has released.
After said seven-minute opening sample, the album explodes and then trudges forth in the best way possible. Each riff, no matter how simple, complicated, or repetitive, just sounds heavy. Like, "it's astounding there is no bassist in this band" heavy. Like, crush your skull and watch the brains leak out heavy. Just...heavy. The drumming, while not over-produced to make that annoying "boom" sound that perpetuates itself in metalcore, is also super heavy. However, the singing is not heavy, but ferocious. It's less of a scream and more of a screech. If I had to choose a pedantic metaphor to describe the vocals, I'd say that they sound like someone put a cat in a bag into a bucket of water, shook it all up, and released it into a room filled with mice: desperate, frightened, furious and running on pure adrenaline. Because of this, the lyrics are almost impossible to discern, but let's be real: They're not the focus of the music--the crushing chaos is.
And yet, in the middle of all the crushing chaos is a very refined and earnest sense of songwriting, composition and production. Songs vary in structure, and few of the songs suffer from the all-too-common problem of "same structure with different riffs" that many doom and sludge outfits run into. Samples are abundantly littered throughout the album, but they aren't your normal metal sample material (reused "hard" movie quotes, women screaming, oddly placed church bells from The Omen or The Exorcist placed at either the beginning or ending of a song). All the Waters is void of the "awkward" outro samples that some metal bands use in mediocre songs to help the listener forget the banality of the music you heard before it. Instead, the samples are incorporated very organically into the design of each song and used to extend the depth that most duos lack due to the limitations of a drummer-guitarist design. For instance, in the fourth song ("Even the Saints Knew Their Hour of Failure and Loss"), another choral sample is mixed with a very raw recording of a church bell that helps to build the song to its climax, when the bent guitar riff and chorus drops out leaving only the vocals, drums, and bell in the mix. It is quite literally breathtaking when the guitar joins back in towards the end of the track for the "breakdown."
Sure, the negative connotation of the word "art" could be thrown here and there, and certain songs simply don't work according to plan due to the duo's urge to experiment with the medium of sludge metal. For instance, I now skip "The Curse" entirely due to the fact that it drags a little too much both at the beginning and at the end of the song. However, patience is a virtue any metalhead should learn, and it pays off on songs like "Ruiner," which builds and explodes into one of the heaviest breakdowns I've ever heard (when I saw the band live, this song made both the basement and everything/one in it vibrate; and then someone punched me in the neck).
I think that many fans of countercultural music often use the term "artistic" as a "nicer" replacement for the unholiest of slurs: "inauthentic." Calling out a band's sincerity is often a dangerous game that can rob you of subcultural capitol, should you be wrong about a band's intention. However, the term "artsy" implies that, while the band does come off as manufactured, it's somehow intentional and possibly deserving of praise from individuals who might not be as "dedicated to the core" as someone who is not "artsy." A similar replacement is "experimental," although in the world of punk and metal, experimental is much less damning than "artistic." In the case of All the Waters of the Earth Shall Turn to Blood, I think it would be wrong to use any of those terms as a negative descriptor. Sure, the band is using some experimental techniques (chopping and screwing on "Empty Hearth," the use of a cappella choral samples on several tracks, and a bizarre self-sampling mash-up that occurs around the eight-minute mark of the last song), but none of them detract or distract from the true heart of the album: well-written songs and mind-blowingly heavy riffs. Any fan of doom or sludge metal will (more than likely) be a fan of All the Waters and I personally think that non-fans will be able to find something to enjoy within the dense layers of the album. All the Waters has completely won me over, and I will certainly be including it in my best of 2010 list.