In the world of heavy music, few bands embrace dynamics and negative space like Kowloon Walled City. Since forming 15 years ago, the band has increasingly refined its deconstructed approach to noise rock, math rock, and doom, landing them on stages with similar boundary-pushing bands like Neurosis, Yob, Sleep, Sumac, and Thou.
Now, with Piecework (Neurot Recordings/Gilead Media), the band’s fourth album and first in six years, Kowloon Walled City reaches new levels of restraint. Songs are bleak and slow, but also shorter and more concise. (Seven songs clock in at about 30 minutes.) There are stretches of near silence. While the band has always operated under the MO that less is more, it has doubled down on that ethos for Piecework. Singer/guitarist Scott Evans and guitarist Jon Howell, the main songwriters, self-imposed restrictions to push themselves creatively—“restraining ourselves into oblivion,” as Howell put it. Songs are written in more straightforward time signatures. Evans and Howell also changed their guitar rigs to sound more “clean and clanky.”
With the gristle stripped away, bone and muscle remain: drums decaying in a room, bass strings rattling, a lonely guitar chord. Sometimes, it’s almost uncomfortably barren. But the negative space also amplifies the ruptures of heady aggressiveness that anchor Piecework. Angular guitar notes from Howell skew off the neck, dissolving into space. Ian Miller’s bass lines churn in the muck. Drums and cymbal smashing by Dan Sneddon punctuate dead air. (Sneddon, formerly of Early Graves, makes his recording debut with the band five years after joining.) There’s sadness and anger in Evans’ shouted vocals, but also a desire for something better.
Through the resignation and regret, Piecework also hints at perseverance and hope. On “Utopian,” inspired in part by Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi book Red Mars, Evans declares, “now we’re weightless, left for dead / there’s no sorry songs left”—a statement of fatalism or perhaps a rallying cry, as if to say, we get it, things are fucked—now what?
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. Lyrics aren’t obviously personal, however; they mix references to family, friends, music (Low, Willie Nelson, The Breeders, The Court and Spark, Radiohead), books (by Kim Stanley Robinson, historian Howard Zinn, English poet Thomas Hood), computer science pioneer Ken Thompson, and some early ’70s computer security analysis papers.
The themes of absence and death, surrendering to aging, and familial strength and love are all encapsulated in album artwork by photographer Melyssa Anishnabie—the tattered beauty of an abandoned home reveals the faint edges of where life used to be. Evans likens it to watching a grandparents’ house fall into disrepair.
As with all previous KWC releases, Evans recorded and mixed Piecework. (His recording credits include Yautja, Thrice, Great Falls, Ghoul, Town Portal, and many others.) And like previous albums Container Ships (2012) and Grievances (2015), the tracks were recorded live at Oakland’s Sharkbite Studios, with minor overdubs. “There’s not a lot of artifice,” Evans said. “You don’t have to ‘produce in’ excitement or special. Let what’s there be exciting and special.”
On that front, the band has clearly succeeded. Piecework feels not only like an artistic accomplishment but a triumph of perseverance and vision.
Track Listing: 01. Piecework 02. Utopian 03. Oxygen Tent 04. You Had A Plan 05. Splicing 06. When We Fall Through The Floor 07. Lampblack