Brought to You by the Letter S
Silberman, Son Volt and Suicide Silence

I buy a lot of music. Most of it is mediocre, and gets played once or twice, shelved and forgotten. The albums that leave a mark on me are either very good or very bad, and perversely, I’m interested in both to an almost equal degree.

In fact, sometimes I’m more interested in the very bad. I love listening to train wrecks like a forensic scientist, poking through the wreckage to discover what went wrong, and how. I’m fascinated by records with terrible reputations, records that transcend the merely bad and become something else entirely, something legendary.

Case in point: I was watching a VH1 Behind the Music on Styx some years ago, for some reason. I’ve never been a fan of Styx, but have been aware of them, and the songs I’d heard that didn’t remind me of bargain-basement Asia reminded me of treacly late-period Chicago, so I never investigated further. But my interest was piqued by a segment of this episode that eviscerated the band’s 1983 album Kilroy Was Here. And I don’t mean the assembled panelists gave Kilroy a hard time. I mean they tore it to pieces, one after another calling it the worst album ever made.

And I thought to myself: Damn. I have to hear this.

So I did. I bought Kilroy Was Here that week, and lo, it is absolutely awful. Perhaps the best thing about it is how amazing it thinks it is. Kilroy tells the story of a dystopian future in which a fascist government has outlawed music, which is also the plot of both 2112 and Joe’s Garage, only Styx tells this story in the most heavy-handed and obvious way possible, set to some of the most cheese-tastic pop metal ever churned out. It is epically, catastrophically bad, and I treasure that kind of go-for-broke direness wherever I can find it.

Which explains why I recently picked up the self-titled fifth album from a California metal band called Suicide Silence. I’d never heard of this band before a few weeks ago, when I started seeing no-star reviews for this album, and was immediately intrigued. The metal community apparently believes this album is apocalyptically terrible, the worst pile of garbage in many years, a failure on every level. These are magic words to me.

Now, make no mistake – had these reviews simply said that Suicide Silence is bad, I would have ignored them. But no. One after another, they made the case for this record as radioactive, cancerous waste, as if some fateful wrong turn had been taken and now everything had fallen apart. As I investigated, I discovered that Suicide Silence had started off as a deathcore band fronted by lead screamer Mitch Lucker, who died in 2012. His replacement is Eddie Hermida, formerly of similar shouty band All Shall Perish.

It’s Hermida taking the lion’s share of the blame for Suicide Silence, which is definitely a departure. The band enlisted Ross Robinson to produce, which should tell you a lot about how it sounds – Robinson was one of the architects of the nu-metal sound in the ‘90s, and helped turn Sepultura (for one) from a straight-up metal band into a down-tuned groove monster. He’s done the same thing here, helping Suicide Silence essentially make a Deftones record. The riffs are simple, the drums slow and locked in, the grooves deep, and the feedback and noise quotient ratcheted up a hundredfold.

And there’s Hermida, who sings what I’m told are the first clean vocals in the band’s history. He sounds like Chino Moreno, or like someone trying to sound like Chino Moreno – he’s off-key a lot, but in that tortured, wobbly, I’m-trying-to-express-my-pain kind of way. I’m sure these vulnerable vocals are difficult for fans of full-on aggression to swallow, but they don’t sound out of place or particularly strained to me. I even like “Run,” which is all pained singing. It’s right out of the White Pony playbook.

So in a way, I’m disappointed that Suicide Silence isn’t awful. It’s fine, really, a pretty successful transformation from one kind of metal to another. I don’t know if I’ll buy another album from these guys, but this one doesn’t bother me as much as I expected it to. My quest for truly awful music goes on, however, and I’ll report back when I find it.

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I had a discussion this week with several of my music-loving friends about Jeff Tweedy. He’s not an infrequent topic in my circle, since I find Tweedy alternately self-indulgent and boring, and virtually everyone else I know thinks he’s a genius. It has long been my belief that Tweedy’s best quality is attracting collaborators better than he is, and his worst quality is pushing those collaborators away.

One need look no further than Uncle Tupelo, Tweedy’s first band. I love Uncle Tupelo, but I found as I dug deeper that my favorite of their material came from Jay Farrar, Tweedy’s partner in crime (and songwriting). When Tupelo split, Tweedy formed Wilco (and if you don’t know my thoughts on Wilco, check the archive) while Farrar created Son Volt. Farrar’s work has always been the more traditional of the two, and in many ways the less exciting. Wilco takes enough risks that, in theory, they should never be boring, while Farrar sticks to more time-tested avenues.

And yet I’ve been happier with Son Volt’s output over the last 20 years. True, Farrar can’t boast a high water mark like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but he has no low one like A Ghost is Born to apologize for either. He’s a steady, solid, dependable writer, and his catalog is an argument in favor of keeping an even keel. The eighth Son Volt album, Notes of Blue, keeps the streak alive. It’s a brief brush with blues and Americana that makes fine use of Farrar’s distinctive voice and love of simplicity.

I’m particularly fond of the bluesier ones this time, like the raucous “Static” and the dark and dusty “Cherokee St. Girl.” A few years ago Farrar explored the country backwater of his sound on Honky Tonk, and he does the same for blistering electric blues here. “Lost Souls” is an elementary rocker, but he sells it, and the guitar tone he sports here and elsewhere on Notes of Blue is arresting. “Sinking Down” is a slide guitar ride into the swampland, and while it’s nothing new, it’s fun and well-made.

That pretty much sums up Son Volt for me. Farrar is probably never going to try anything as drastic as Suicide Silence has done, but that’s OK. Notes of Blue is another enjoyable Son Volt album, and that’s enough to get me to the next one, smiling and tapping my feet along the way.

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Finally, for this week brought to you by the letter S, we have Peter Silberman, who has just made one of my favorite pieces of music I’ve heard this year.

If Silberman’s name is unfamiliar to you, I’d point you in the direction of his quietly consistent band, the Antlers. They began as a solo project, but in 2009, fully formed, they released an extraordinary album called Hospice, all about letting people in and letting them go. While Silberman has never quite captured that magic again, the next two Antlers albums (and two EPs) have been swell. They play a particularly dreamy style of art-rock indie that soars on Silberman’s powerful voice – it’s reminiscent of both Jeff Buckley and Jimmy Gnecco.

That voice is at the center of Impermanence, Silberman’s first true solo album, and it stands revealed as an incredible instrument. Where the Antlers piled on the instrumentation, Silberman cuts everything to the bone, leaving only his guitar and some percussion to carry most of this record. Opener “Karuna” is nearly nine minutes of nothing but guitar, voice and subtle drums, and it’s quickly become one of my favorite Silberman songs. It aches with loneliness, offering quiet catharsis with its round-robin chant near the end.

The rest of the album follows suit. “New York” nearly floats away, it’s so sparse, but it’s absolutely lovely. There are flutes and brass here, but they’re the softest, most ambient flutes and brass you’ve ever heard. This song directly addresses the tinnitus Silberman has been dealing with for years: “When my nerve wore down, I was assailed by simple little sounds, hammer clangs, sirens in the park, like I never heard New York…” This is a quieter record for a reason – he’s been recovering from hearing loss and an all-consuming ringing in his left ear, and Impermanence artfully dances around the subject.

The heartbreaking “Gone Beyond” is another eight minutes of glorious beauty, and its first verse tackles his hearing loss: “I’m listening for you, silence, but god, there’s so much noise, and now I fear I’ve found you, you’re partially destroyed.” Silberman’s voice is reined in here, his chiming guitar like ripples on a quiet lake. The entire album is a lovely meditation, and it plays like a single thought. Closer “Ahimsa” is the ray of hope the record needed: “Time is all we have, I hope I have enough, enough to show you love before my time is up…”

There may be more goosebump-worthy albums released in 2017, but right now, I’m not betting on it. Impermanence is the most delicate and gorgeous of Peter Silberman’s works, a record so ethereal that it sounds at times like Jeff Buckley come back to life, and yet so personal that it couldn’t be anyone else. Like Hospice, this is an album I’ll be listening to for many years to come, getting lost in its stillness. Despite his album’s title, I hope Silberman’s return is a permanent one.

Next week, a pair of longed-for returns. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at See you in line Tuesday morning.