As a decent-sized fan of the Cows, I was nominally familiar with Amphetamine Reptile Records, the now defunct label that signed them and a quarter-million other skronky rock bands. I had also read Mark Prindle’s review of Halo of Flies’ compilation “Music for Insect Minds,” in which AmRep chief Tom Hazelmyer compared his old band’s compilation unfavorably to this particular Hammerhead album. He called Into the Vortex a “great [example] of a band fleshing out an album in its entirety.” Hazelmyer also referred to it in an interview with Terminal Boredom as an “amazing peak hit” and “an apex, possibly,” for the noise-rock genre. How could I not? (aside from hypothetically finding it horribly expensive on Discogs or really just hating what I heard on YouTube)
Some other idiot reviewed “Into the Vortex” as well for a “dollar bin” review blog or something. Give him some shit if you read this — he called them a “typical rough-around-the-edges hard rock band” and uncharitably appraised the first and last songs, while lukewarmitizing the second and eighth. Lame.
After all those “quotation marks,” the reader will probably be “glad” to resume the “regular” review and (“shit!”)
Get me not wrong — there are certainly problems with “Into the Vortex.” The biggest of these is the vocals, whose main perpetrator seems to be guitarist “Interloper.” It is safe to say that the sung parts of this album have grown a little bit on me (a sort of rubbernecking interest), but they are pretty certain to turn off much of the electorate. They make Guy Picciotto sound like fucking Caruso.
In addition, the album does not sound all that revolutionary at first. Most of its songs sound similar to other heavy and “heavy” nineties-rock bands: “Starline Locomotive’s” chord progression echoes the Melvins’ “At the Stake,” “Galaxy 66” has a galloping beat like one of those typical Johnny Cash songs, and “Empty Angel”‘s elastic groove even recalls that first Stone Temple Pilots album. (I was young, alright?) Like the moron at the dustbin review site, I didn’t really comprehend what made the album good — I had only listened a little bit.
Let’s begin, shall we? Good. “Swallow” is an interesting track. Compared to the other songs, its chord progressions rather drift out of the head during instantaneous recall, and the sole remaining components in my mind are the vocals and drums. Before I catch my tasteless self, I often will mutter “My mother she hates me… she turned my father against me…” under my breath in the computer lab. (I don’t know how many other people’s serene moments I’ve ruined with such exclamations.) The song itself turns almost hideously funny, in spite of the repulsive emo lyrics, when the singer’s voice squeaks during the verses.
“The Starline Locomotive” features more tonal and emotive singing, and the music gets correspondingly more digestible. As I mentioned earlier, its sweet chord progression comes mostly from elsewhere, but (it’s late and I need to go to bed)
Shit, this is good. Pardon me, I’m about a week distant from the horribly smug review I had been preparing for Hammerhead’s Into the Vortex. It more than deserves a second listen — it deserves a third, and a fourth, and maybe a tenth or thirty-seventh. As many times as you can without becoming unstable from loss of sleep. In fact, forget sleep — this will clean your brain of the chemical waste that accumulates during the day, the by-products of thinking around your fellow humans and respond to the alternating inanity and mind-boggling horrid putridity they are capable of displaying. When the words and the music are professed junk, only the noise makes sense; when the institutions are devoted to nothing, only the nothing can be devoted to something. So it is with Mr. Hammerhead and his second album.
Now, I realized today on the bus that a track-by-track review for such a unified album is more or less totally pointless. Instead, I plan to comment on the feel of the music, and perhaps include some shit about standout songs’ place in the whole. (Bring your pillow — keyboards make for uncomfortable dozing.)
The music, as a whole, benefits immeasurably from the distorted bass. It gives the recording a lumpy, substantial texture, like that of a baked potato, that (I kid you not) I can almost taste when I listen. Like Violet Beauregard chewing the forbidden gum, I feel the bass crackle between my teeth, and it is immensely crunchy. The guitar atop such scrumptious low-range frequencies is less punchiful than one might expect. It has a bit less distortion than one might expect from a “noise-rock” band, and plays a different sort of riff: what should, in theory, be standard Black Sabbathy shifts in tempo and mood end up somehow distinct. Perhaps it’s the diminished-fifth power chords that are often wedged alongside the root-note-based ones, but these riffs are subtly dissimilar to anyone else’s. And they change so quickly! Lead-off track “Swallow” chews through almost half a dozen in its four minutes, and “Journey to the Center of Tetnus 4” at least as many in seven. Did I mention that they’re not superfluous, either? Each pattern serves not to show how many riffs Hammerhead can cram into a song, but to advance the whole piece. It’s masterful composition, and displays a knowledge of songcraft uncommon to the hard rockers who occupy somewhere to the conservative right of Hammerhead’s niche.
The drums are another matter entirely. They are mixed into the background, serving as a kind of trebly flourish on the guitar’s antics, lacking a great deal of the immediacy that percussion often brings to the songs. On some tracks they plod agonized over the riff (“All This Is Yours”, “Journey”‘s introduction) but more often are an asset to a song: the drums give “Zesta” its water-treading, flailing-in-place feel, carry “Galaxy 66” at a daring gallop, lend a lopsided circularity to “Brest,” accent the elastic snap of the “Empty Angel” riff. Even if they lack in power and impact, the drums are more than essential to the atmosphere that hangs over Into the Vortex like a cloud of carnivorous bricks. If only they were more prominent.
I won’t mention the vocals. They are low-hanging fruit, which turn the stomach with their diffident mumble and hideous screech (traits which do not come together often, or well). Any idiot can listen to the album and make fun of them — it takes a genius like me to get past them and hear how great the backing band is. I also will not mention “All This Is Yours,” a musically repulsive song with absolutely abominable lyrics and no redeeming social value except as a delirious case study. (Fuckin’ A, this one is bad.) No point in listening again.
Again, I will not mention them.
My personal copy of this terrific(ally out-of-print) CD came from a Discogs order placed to Amoeba Music, but that’s probably not the only place you’ll find it. Used-album bins across the Midwest are surely pregnant with its brothers and sisters, so seek them out. Also, if you find Killdozer’s Twelve Point Buck, I’d appreciate a description. I hear it’s good.