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Stabbing Westward
Westward Ho: Jim Sellers (from left), Christopher Hall, Andy Kubiszewski and Walter Flakus of Stabbing Westward howl about the pain of love.

Stabbing Westward blisters and peels on new album

By Nicky Baxter

"Ungod" is a hellish but fitting introduction to Chicago rockers Stabbing Westward's bleak soundscapes. Sitting through the album at close range is a punishing experience, except that it's not volume alone that stuns you into slack-jawed speechlessness. Equally devastating is Ungod's unrepentant bile. Singer Christopher Hall alternately seethes with clenched-teeth menace and rails like a psychopath. The band's debut album is a primal therapy session acted out on disc.

When Ungod was released in 1994, Hall and guitarist Stuart Zechman were both experiencing love's ugly south side. "Every person that was important to me up and left at the same time [during the summer of 1991]," Hall explained at the time. "Stu had something similar happen to him ... so we used these feelings of hatred towards ourselves and our ex-girlfriends." Hence Ungod's scabrous "Lies" and "Violent Mood Swings," whose lyrics seesaw precipitously between murderous rancor and self-abnegation.

But that was then; this is now, right? Especially in the aftermath of both Zechman and drummer David Suycott's departure (the latter has been replaced). Wrong. Like its unremittingly cheerless predecessor, Wither Blister Burn & Peel (Columbia) is a case study in paranoia, morbid obsessions and raging self-loathing.

The album opener, "I Don't Believe," begins with the lines "I'm such an asshole/I'm such a stain/I just keep fucking up again and again," suggesting that things haven't improved much on the boy-girl front. The band's ruthless internal journalizing resumes on "Shame," whose serrating guitar, menacing bass and power-keg drumming explode in your face. When Hall wails, "How can I live without you?" it's less a question than a threat.

Just as Wither Blister Burn & Peel is a further exploration of lyrical themes first hammered out on Ungod, the album also exhibits both an expansion and refinement of the ensemble's musical palette. On Ungod, Stabbing Westward's debt to Chicago industrialists like Nine Inch Nail and Killing Joke was plain for all to hear; on the new album, that debt is paid in full. Whereas Flakus' keyboards were fraught with a kind of gauzy dread on the former, his playing on the latter has a sharper edge. In fact, the whole of Wither Blister Burn & Peel is crisper, more angular.

That angularity is largely attributable to the mass of guitars animating these tracks. If on Ungod, the band allowed Zechman to play guitar autocrat, now that he's out of the picture, the foursome bursts at the seams with democratic fervor. At various junctures, Hall, Flakus, bassist Jim Sellers and drummer Andy Kubiszewski all take a stab at guitar heroics, often on the same track.

At once streamlined and gargantuan, the new Stabbing Westward posse possesses massive amount of postindustrial firepower. Now if only they'd let a little sunshine into the lyrics.

Stabbing Westward and S.L.A. play Friday (March 15) at the Cactus Club, 417 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $7. (408/491-9300)

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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