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Blades of Glory

Religious Knives Spurns Players' Noise Pedigrees to Mangle Rock On Their Own Terms

Religious Knives, Surprisingly, Create Order Out Of Chaos.

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 10/22/2008

Noise rock isn't a homogenous genre. Its myriad leading lights resist such lazy, reductive lumping. Wolf Eyes' protracted Michigan death rattle and sickly hum, for example, has fuck all to do with John Wiese's California laptop-born napalm pops. Any flavor of fudged-up sonic rot you desire is available for consumption. Want snarling, fanged dementia that doesn't pause for breath? Try Norway's Lasse Marhaug. Thundering, hell-for-leather noise metal? Rhode Island's Lightning Bolt. For unfathomably generated mutant sounds, there's Baltimore's own Nautical Almanac. Until fairly recently, the diagnosis for listeners looking to experience a blistering Zen turbulence would have been Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Double Leopards.

Prior to going on hiatus in 2006, the Leopards were the best drone-core unit going, summoning buzzing storms of noise that subtly conquered the ears then insinuated themselves into the audible background; the effect was such that the silence greeting listeners at the end of, say, Out of One, Through One, and to One was more devastating than what preceded it. Though the quartet alternated between blinding blizzards and malign drones, the outcome was always, happily, the same.

Since going their separate ways, Leopards Marcia Bassett, Chris Gray, Mike Bernstein, and Maya Miller have largely forsaken the holistic power of drones. The prolific Bassett has poured her considerable energies into various projects, some pre-dating the hiatus: Hototogisu's paint-peeling noise meltdowns, Zaimph's meandering electronic explorations, GHQ's abstractions. And classic rock-reheated group Endless Boogie, which includes Gray, has been all but sedentary.

Yet the work of Religious Knives to date--Miller (organs/vocals/%uFFFDber-cryptic doodles) and Bernstein (guitars/synths/vocals), with Mouthus drummer Nate Nelson and bassist/producer Todd Cavallo--is blazing a remarkable evolutionary path. Given the diffuse, untethered nature of the players' other outfits, what Knives present is notable: noise-rockers incrementally saying see ya to the genre that birthed them by embracing the rock to which noise exists almost in opposition.

On 2007's grim Remains--a compilation of limited-edition miscellany--the group was still finding its way. There, the Knives explored ritualistic sludge: ghoulish processional "Electricity and Air" dragged slovenly strips of organ and atonal riffs through a festering brown rumble; "Blackbird" lumbered under the cumbersome, amassed weight of curious clanks, smudged cyclical guitar figures, and Miller's wordless, distended coos. On "Wax and Flesh," staggered organ chords buried Bernstein's murky spoken word when Nelson's bomb-detonation percussion wasn't punching holes through it.

Foreboding and murky, Remains suggested dimly lit Morlock tunnels, bad acid trips, and choppy footage of tribal coming-of-age ceremonies. Like so many incestuous noise-universe startups, it was intriguing, but there wasn't much sense that Religious Knives had staying power as an ongoing project. As Knives, Bernstein's and Miller's vocals inched closer to the surface than was the case in Double Leopards, but only as apparitions. Was there something extra to be gleaned here beyond a creeping sense of dread? Where, if anywhere, could Religious Knives go from Remains?

Resin (No Fun)--another roundup of small prior releases released earlier this year--ups the ante, volume, and tempo considerably. For one thing, Nelson's drumming here is downright propulsive--there is no longer the sense of his contributions being ornamental or taking a backseat to the other elements at play. Just check "In the Back," where his rum-pum-pum-pum pilots the overarching din and where the substance of Bernstein's howl is actually discernable: "In the back, back, back/ There's a dooooooooor!/ There's a keeeey, in the hole, in the floooooooor!"

"Everything Happens Twice" is less amorphous, the power-walk stride generated by the rhythm section facing off against Miller's church-organ jabs for a good four minutes--until the focus switches over to sputtering-engine guitar and emphatic-if-gravelly chants. On 10-minute tone poem "Growth," understatement reigns supreme: Electric-blues riffs peek through a thin, trembling layer of instrumental and lyrical vegetation, then retreat again. Speaking of retreats, "Twelve Bottles and One White Cone, Parts 1 and 2" goes for 19 minutes of distorted prog jam that is enjoyable, if not game-changing.

Turns out that Resin was just the beginning. So far this year, Religious Knives have issued two proper albums that mark monster steps away from noise-drone doldrums and into classic rock/no-wave terrain. In both cases, the quartet starts out with a head fake. On It's After Dark (Troubleman Unlimited), it's the coked-up Suicide-esque blare and bleary incantations of "In Brooklyn After Dark," 11 repetitive-if-arresting minutes of postpunk garage slop. Then "Streets" heads off in a totally different direction, with Miller and Bernstein co-harmonizing over pithy percussion, shaking rattles, and mournful spurts of organ. If it weren't for the gradual addition of pinprick keyboards, "Adam" could be the work of an exceptionally disciplined wiccan drum circle; meditation aid "Noontime" somehow mashes together ambient, New Age, and Krautrock themes without making the whole seem incongruous; "The Hand" layers a mild symphony of synths, organs, and strings with what appears to be a sample of rustling leaves or oil on a hot stove.

More concise and more effective is The Door (Ecstatic Peace!), which kicks off in quasi lizard-king Doors--see what the band did there?--mode with "Downstairs": Bernstein and Miller taking turns on the microphone, crystalline organ bolts and scales, dead-eyed drum clops, guitars used sparingly and only as accents. "5" goes in a slightly industrial direction, with Miller overexaggerating her break-on-through-to-the-other-side discourse and the players locking into a surprisingly steadfast cogs-in-a-machine groove even as feedback haunts the factory in increasing numbers.

While "On a Drive" marks a return of sorts to the slouching doom that characterized Remains, the surrounding ambiance is much less smoggy. Held-note downstrokes stalk through irritated static, setting the scene for some heavy moment of reckoning. Then, as if narrating a nightmare, Bernstein begins to sing, clearly: "On a drive, to the beach/ In the middle of the night/ Shadows on the hood/ Runnin' from the streetlights/ And you left me on the sand." The plot escalates slightly further, toying with interpersonal dynamics while never arriving at an explicit conclusion.

The music doesn't, either--guitars glower at one another, drumsticks collide then whack the skins--and even when these elements eventually break into a series of repetitious slam dances, there's more of a Big Ben-tolling impression than a sense of cataclysmic resolution. We're left to guess what happened on the sand, to finish the story ourselves, to be struck still by suggestive foreshadowing like, "Waiting for your call. I'm an island in your mind/ You're a presence in my way," and the manner in which Bernstein tacks on a trail of "ways"--as though he's caught in an outgoing current or wandering blind into an newly opened other-dimensional portal.

By the end of The Door, Religious Knives have earned their juice, and pulse-pounding closer "Decisions" is there to underline the point. In a joint statement here, Miller and Bernstein sidestep the surrealism and implied portent they usually traffic in to declare that the kid gloves are off, that anything is possible: "Where does it come from, the feeling you get when you want to hold back nothing?" Not sure where it comes from, but we look forward to seeing where it leads.

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