Before we begin, let’s take a moment and admire the cover art to your left, shall we? Here we have Steel Druhm and a fellow soldier buddy, waging intergalactic war against alien things while the logo for Cleveland’s Contra may or may not cause Konami’s lawyers to give them a phone call quicker than one can shout, “Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start.” If you were a child of the 80s who grew up parked in front of a TV and an NES (i.e., me), your heart must be aflutter with memories of controllers thrown, high-fives slapped, and an endless night or two with a best bud. So when I grabbed Contra‘s debut, Deny Everything, I was chomping at the bit to relive memories of my childhood while experiencing some good ol’ American stoner metal.
And musically, that’s what you’re gonna get! Chris Chiera must have graduated from the Clutch Institute of Thick Riffs and Smooth Grooves, as between him and bassist Adam Horwatt, there’s no shortage of hooks and grooves on display. Opener “Human Buzzsaw” is littered with great riffs and tasteful solos, and you can’t help but bob your head along. Elsewhere, instrumentals “Altered Beast” (WIZE FWOM YO GWAAAAVE!!!) and “One Hundred Hand Slap” both groove along with some of the meanest swagger, with the latter calling upon the spirits of the late Kyuss. When the band locks into a groove, it would take something colossal to knock that train off the tracks.
But sadly, there are three major things that do just that to Deny Everything. For starters, when the band slows to a crawl, such as on the six-minute slog “Humanoid Therapy” and almost-eight-minute closer “Shrimp Cocktail,” the good mojo turns into a repetitious drag. Also, once you hit the halfway point with “Son of Beast,” a strong sense of deja vu rears its ugly head. The second major sticking point lies in the production. The guitars are thick and chewy, but the bass feels muffled and buried. Worst of all, Aaron Brittain’s drums sound awful, especially in the cymbals and an almost non-existent bass drum.
The third and biggest problem, however, lies in the vocals of Larry Brent. There isn’t a polite way to say this, but his voice sounds like a cross between Kirk Windstein (Crowbar) and my late chainsmoking grandfather hacking up a lung while reading along to a lyric sheet. While it does have its charms when it’s effective (such as on “Human Buzzsaw”), it starts grating almost immediately, as there’s no variety or clever cadence. In fact, during “Son of Beast,” it almost sounds like his chorus is him going (and this is a guess, as I have no lyric sheet and the mix is horrible) “IN! DUH! NEE! SHA!!!” over and over again. You can have all the swagger in the world, but if the vocals pull you out of the groove, it’s difficult to get sucked back in.
And it’s a shame too, because I’m all for game-inspired stoner rock. Instrumentally, Contra showcase that they can groove with the big guns with aplomb. But the songwriting needs more tightening, a better studio needs to be booked, and someone should give Brent a heavy-duty expectorant on the next go-round. There’s potential, but it’s severely hampered here.