Kollaps – Sibling Lovers
(TRAIT Records/Silken Tofu)
Reviewed by Michel Rowland.
From the fertile underbelly of Melbourne’s St. Kilda, Kollaps has manifested in one form or another since around early 2015. At that time, a handful of early live clips surfaced online pointing to the influence of Swans, The Birthday Party and others commonly termed ‘no wave’ or ‘swamp rock’, etc. Performances delivered from the unwelcoming confines of near-derelict little dives were bludgeoning, dirge-like and, as the band name suggested, lurched menacingly towards the post-industrial noise of Einstürzende Neubauten, albeit within the subverted format of a ‘rock’ trio.
Over the intervening period, Kollaps has undergone a number of transitions and rebirths, sometimes completely vanishing without trace before re-emerging in a new guise. In their second incarnation, within a few short months of those early shows, Kollaps gave early signs of morphing into something considerably less orthodox. The instrumentation for July 2015’s ‘Heartworm’ (the lead track from August’s 4-track EP by the same name), set groggy, despondent vocals against a disquieting backdrop of synthetic ambience and re-purposed industrial scrap materials, before reaching a frenzied and sustained crescendo driven by barking psychosis and caterwauling guitar noise. The accompanying video, shot between a rehearsal in St. Kilda’s Vault and a gig in an Essendon squat, was filmed by Hugh Marchant, whose credits included work on John Hillcoat’s ‘The Road’, Nick Cave’s Hillcoat-directed ‘The Proposition’, and the ‘Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard’ documentary. I blogged about it then, likening the earlier, tension-building moments in ‘Heartworm’ to Coil, and the latter part of the track to ‘Friend Catcher’ meets ‘Headcleaner’.
The ‘Heartworm’ EP, produced by Ash Wednesday (Einstürzende Neubauten, the Models, et al), appeared the following month through Belgian label Silken Tofu. The remainder of the EP explored the outer periphery of post-punk, still operating more-or-less within a bass, drums, guitar and vocals format. Opening track ‘You Know It’s True’ recalled The Birthday Party’s tumultuous tom-toms, grinding bass and sonorous guitar. ‘Streets’ (also accompanied by a Marchant clip) glided both aurally and visually overhead; guitar circling like a vulture in the desert sun; a processional, militant snare drum intoning imminent death; vocals warning, “I stalk the streets”; and all elements following the trajectory of the title track towards a violent end. For ‘Androids in Love’, icy syn-drums and minimal bass formed the skeletal frame of a peephole diorama, while a characteristically Rowland S. Howard-ish guitar rang out as the sole character on a distant stage, and detached vocals narrated the scene. The EP concluded with the title track, providing the nearest signifier of what would follow.
The new LP, ‘Sibling Lovers’, contrasts even more starkly with its predecessor. Recognisable ‘song’ and ‘band’ structures have been deconstructed further, and in several instances demolished or left to ruin altogether. Of all the stylistic influences displayed in their output to date, “harsh, post-industrial noise” is the immediately dominant feature of this record, whereas repeated listening also reveals successful hybridisation with earlier techniques. Just a little over half-an-hour in length, the album took two-and-a-half years to make, and was reportedly a hellish, gruelling procedure for all concerned. It shows. ‘Heartworm’, by comparison, was a jaunty wee barrel of laughs.
Central figure Wade Black laughingly acknowledges that the transitions “have been many, and very painful.” There have been several line-up changes over the two years hence; one bassist was reputedly fired immediately after playing her first gig. To the outsider looking in, it seems Black is possessed of an uncompromising singularity of vision for Kollaps.
In each incarnation, however, Kollaps has always taken the form of a trio, spearheaded by Black and, more-often-than not, accompanied by drummer, percussionist, programmer and chief mainstay Robin W. Marsh. Even Marsh has fallen casualty to the album’s unrelenting process at one point, before being asked to rejoin. For the latest rebuild, the unit is completed with the addition of bassist and percussionist Damian Coward, previously of Heirs, High Tension, The Night Terrors and Ascetic.
In this configuration, Robin Marsh’s respective roles performing with conventional drums on the one part and construction tools, machinery and scrap metal on the other have been inverted; metal percussion is increasingly fundamental while acoustic drums often function as augmentation. Black now rarely wields a guitar, instead hurtling himself unencumbered at the role of vocalist, both live and on record, seemingly intent on testing the physical limitations of his slight frame in the process. Damian Coward’s background in doom and noise meanwhile ensures that bass just as often resembles a distorted frequency as the familiar instrument of a more conventional band. In cases where the latter approach is required, bass typically comes to the forefront of spaces left abandoned by guitar.
An online blurb about the album stresses that the band’s instrumentation is not “an empty gesture to the industrial genre, it’s a way to literally use the detritus of postmodern society against itself”. In an effort to reflect the nature of live performances (which in turn offers a salient insight into the mindset driving the album’s painstaking process), vocals on ‘Sibling Lovers’ were recorded with two microphones in the vocal booth – an overhead room mic capturing the unprocessed performance, and another direct vocal mic, which was routed through an effects unit to the mixing console. From the desk, the effect-laden vocal was in turn sent back to two separate amplifiers – a 1976 Fender Twin Reverb, and an Ampeg Bass stack. Each amplifier was in turn mic’d and recorded independently.
And the results? Well, on first listen, it’s just torturous fucking noise. That, in and of itself, is enough to recommend it to fans of the genre. But the following track-by-track has been written in the midst of repeated listens, each more rewarding than the last.
‘Cancer’ is one minute and twenty-four seconds of distorted white noise and solemn, doleful repetition of “I’m Cancer… and I love you”.
The template for ‘Capitalism’ is industrial scrap metal percussion and grinding surface textures driven along by thudding kick drums, before distorted bass noise and antagonistic vocals drone in. Sluggish, drawling lines like “show me the money” are elsewhere punctuated by shards of more emphatic, reactionary ranting and railing against “CAPITALISM! CAPITALISM!”, which might be liberally interpreted as a sort of ‘hookline’, while the sound of struck metal later gives way for an interval of the distorted bass and kick drum. These shifts provide some degree of dynamic variance, but the relentlessness, unyielding drive of ‘Capitalism’ thrusts onward.
Percussion for ‘Suck’ is electronic by contrast, albeit no less belligerent. Bass riffs complete with distinct hooks almost begin to resemble something song-like, and vocals follow suit with a ‘mock rock’ tonality, occasionally resembling J. G. Thirlwell. Guitar even makes an appearance later in ‘Suck’, albeit more as a percussive instrument, and buried in amongst the same mass of distorted, processed frequencies. The track stands out from ‘Sibling Lovers’ as one of its most immediately accessible moments (relatively speaking), and one of few acknowledgements to terrain Kollaps have already crossed before. Within the setting of ‘Sibling Lovers’ it provides another dynamic shift, without becoming incongruous. Along with ‘Capitalism’, ‘Suck’ is also one of the two preview tracks currently online with pre-orders, and both serve the album well as introductions.
Aptly, ‘Suck’ is followed by one of the album’s most ear-splitting and least comprehensible tracks, ‘It Has a Mouth’. Trudging percussion, blistering atonal noise and screeching, ranting, barely intelligible vocals dominate the first minute or so. The screaming and pounding lets up momentarily, while the residual fallout of crushing noise undulates in its wake, before abruptly launching itself back into the fray. This pattern of sustained aural battery followed by brief intermissions of no-less-abrasive noisescape repeats for another two cycles, the final onslaught being shorter, the vocals now spoken in conclusion with emphasis to the title line, and reaching some sort of uneasy peace-by-exhaustion.
‘Hiroshima Winds #1’ does what it says on the tin: another one minute and twenty-four seconds of largely atonal noise, with the exception of subtle incidental sounds near its onset, including the faint echo of what is presumably a Suzu bell.
It is followed by a new version of ‘Heartworm’. While there are immediately recognisable elements in the droning electronic bass tones characterising the original, this is more like a sequel to the EP version than a new recording of the same track. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first notable point of difference is that it is noisier throughout. Not so predictable is that metal percussions and textures seem less present, in favour of more electronic percussive strikes. The vocals/lyrics are different (and improved in both delivery and treatment), the overall structure and progression has changed, and rather than building from unsettling ‘dark ambience’ to a crescendo of guitar squall, bass feedback now gradually infiltrates throughout.
‘Hiroshima Winds #2’ is not unlike its predecessor but relies more on bass frequencies. In essence, the album comprises five major cornerstone tracks, while ‘Cancer’ and the two ‘Hiroshima Winds’ pieces serve more like preludes and interludes tying them together.
The title track doubles as the album closer. The traditional drumkit is reintroduced, pounding and building in tension as vocals are initiated, gradually intoning one drawn-out syllable at a time. Intensity begins to escalate while passing the two-minute mark. A metallic strike signals the second phase in the ritual; a hammering bass joins the drums in monotone; feedback, samples and percussive noises flicker in and out of the frame; and vocals increase in force. Slow building, and positioned as it is in the tracklisting, ‘Sibling Lovers’ generates an impression of continually moving towards something even more gargantuan than before. But instead, a little over six minutes in, everything scales back to the bare-boned rhythmic pulse that first set the scene, and over the next two minutes just gradually slips away. As an exercise in creating tension without resolution, it’s very effective. And in the uncomfortable silence, there resides a sense of the band’s restless energy, perhaps already seeking out some other dark corner of the collective psyche to delve into; some other fresh scab to pick at.
That the album is less than 33 minutes in length is scarcely noticeable, from the magnitude and stature of its five central works. However, ‘Sibling Lovers’ probably requires a good 3-4 listens in order to gain some perspective of that content. On first impression, the prevalence of repetition and harsh noise might seem to make the case for a genre or medium being stagnant; no more challenging or experimental now than records made by Whitehouse and Throbbing Gristle some 30-40 years ago. Where it succeeds in that arena, however, is not so much in challenging the boundaries of ‘music’ as it is in pushing the limits of the artists themselves. Obsessive focus, drive and sheer bloody-mindedness conspire to drag Kollaps kicking and screaming from one end of this record to the other, with little regard for their own wellbeing.
Attentive listening also reveals many other nuances lurking beneath that surface noise. Nods to formative post-punk/no wave (etc) influences such as Swans, Birthday Party and co are still present, for example, particularly in the rhythm section, but through the marriage of the visceral to the mechanical, Kollaps succeed in bringing their own creation to bear. The material and its performance is also likely to confront and challenge audiences far more in a live setting, and especially at close quarters, when the band embark on their European tour. Hellbent on slogging themselves through mercilessly punishing regimes, Kollaps will play 30 dates in 31 days between November and December this year.
‘Sibling Lovers’ by Kollaps will release in both vinyl LP and digital download formats on the 29th September, through TRAIT Records (AU) and Silken Tofu (EU). It can be pre-ordered from Bandcamp now.