Glasgow-based Civil Elegies is a band who sound like they want to strip away excess, to shirk off the self-indulgent ornamentation of their mathcore peers and focus on the things that really count: the lyrics, the feeling, the noise.
It’s no surprise, coming from a group of musicians who chose the minimal frills method of recording each of their three albums in a single day; whose live shows are renowned for their explosive energy; whose music is both textured and direct enough to feel provocative, tangible.
What makes Civil Elegies stand out is the way they negotiate raw emotion through a remarkably crafted strain of noise rock, balancing the almost primal fury of juddering, screaming guitars with some masterfully tight, tribal drum rhythms and the immaculate angst of Hamish Black’s vocal delivery.
While losing none of the acerbic punch of its predecessors, Combat is a more sophisticated offering, and you can tell the band have honed their songwriting craft by the appearance of more refined melodies, developing further the counterbalancing of rhythmic restraint and unleashed chaos.
The almost syncopated dissonance of songs like ‘Modern Combat’ and ‘The Ambition of Death’ are jarring examples of the band at their angriest, matching lyrics on self-loathing and physical disgust (images of blood, milk, mutilation and pain abide) with an instrumental expression that also borders on the abject, refusing musical coherence in favour of heavy reverb and splintering time signatures.
The cultural exhaustion implied by the post internet glitch art on previous album Aesthetics is here supplanted by cover art by Steven Hill which seems almost Futurist, made up of stark vectors and black ripples which suggest the swelling of sound waves – a fitting match for an album which finds redemption in the holocaust of sound itself, mirroring a kind of Marinetti-inspired project of destruction as creation.
The album’s cataclysmic momentum swerves between self and societal disgust and a fervent desire to escape the bloat of our consumerist world in favour of a pure insistence on being itself, as Black avows on ‘Borders’ and elsewhere (most potently on ‘The Chorus’): “I AM THE TRUEST SELF”.
The clashing guitar and drums crash again and again in a kind of traumatic repetition compulsion that renders viscerally the lyrical themes of psychological disorder and political breakdown; each clattering chord is the deliberate, slightly sadistic rubbing of salt into the singer’s existential vulnerability.
Lyrically, Combat sometimes sounds like Black chewing up Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and spewing out with renewed venom his devastating analysis of contemporary culture and its effects on relationships, political belonging and subjectivity, with the shamelessly self-effacing energy of lines like “we are the cold hard trash” running in powerful dialectic alongside the album’s general nihilism.
This is a record rich in biblical imagery (severed hands, relentless waves, prayers and dialogues with the almighty), a record that confronts the rampant expansion of neoliberalism (“the state withered away”) and casts a Marxist eye of disgust on “decadent bourgeois obfuscation”.
Its critical exploration of self and society in the modern age is filtered through an interest in the threshold between inner being and the outer world, with all its behavioural demands of ideology (song titles ‘Borders’ and ‘The Way Out’ imply this theme of liminality), as well as a confrontation with the failures of language itself in songs like ‘Semantics’, where, as Black howls, “stale phrases rang like music”.
Combat’s music, however, blasts away any residue of staleness: its oblique cultural commentary and frank exploration of mental disorder shake up the fault lines of all generic expectation, leaving the listener with a cathartic sense of being purged by an operatic wall of callous sound.
Perhaps nowhere is this disturbance of genre better expressed than on the band’s mesmerising cover of Queen’s ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’, which is transformed into an eerily synth-ridden dirge, the record’s tender heart of darkness, whose haunting vocal delivery is not a world away from that of Tool’s Maynard James Keenan.
Queen’s song, in all the mangled and metallic reverb of its post-punk adaptation, slots perfectly into an album whose rendering of the savagery of the human condition would indeed leave us critical of the idealist prospect of living forever – better to live, Combat suggests, in the fleeting fire of the moment: thunder of drums and bolt of melody, showered in impenetrable metal.
Words: Maria Sledmere