It’s late in the year, and list season is upon us. For the past eleven months, trying to keep up with all of the quality extreme metal has felt like trying to drink from a fire hose. The volume of stellar releases has only multiplied in recent weeks, and for every one I manage to catch, three more stack up on my “get to” pile. So with all that metal practically begging for my attention, now seems like the perfect time to take a break from it. I was unfamiliar with Buildings when I chose Negative Sound from the promo pit, but its tag of “noise rock” and distinctly non-metal artwork seemed the ideal palate cleanser. The fact that they hail from my own back yard of Minneapolis and are on Gilead Media, who have hit nothing but home runs in 2019, sealed the deal. Are they worth the detour?
“Noise rock” can mean a few things, from post-punk to art school kids playing theremins with sports team “we’re number one” foam fingers on their hands, so I was happy to find Buildings much closer to the former. Their promo states that for Negative Sound, their fourth full-length, they attempted an “uglier” version of their already established sound. I’m not sure what this means for their back catalog, but it puts their current output in the same stylistic neighborhood as post-hardcore legends Fugazi, particularly the In On the Kill Taker and Red Medicine days. Songs like opener “A Good Hill to Die On” and “Felt Like a Perfume” feature the kind of angular start/stop/ok now groove structures that are quintessentially post-hardcore while guitarist and vocalist Brian Lake’s talk-shouting interlocks with and at times breaks free of the clicking drums and nervous riffs.
Instrumentally, Negative Sound is impeccable. Guitars oscillate from high pitched skitter to clipped stutter to full throated riffs on a moment’s notice while drummer Travis Kuhlman pitters or pounds whenever either is called for. Individual songs may be minimal experiments (“A Good Hill to Die On”), red-blooded ragers (“Piss Up a Flagpole”) or scuzzy post punk (“Certain Women”), but Buildings maintain a consistent voice and sound throughout. There are only 31 minutes spread over 10 songs, but it’s a tightly coiled animal that reveals new sounds and transitions with repeat listens. The only significant slow down on Negative Sound is the nearly five minute “Dying NASA Scientist,” easily the longest track, which uses a doom rock groove to release some of the anxious energy that dominates the album up to that point.
When Buildings says that they’re intent is to experiment “…with different guitar noises and vocal patterns to craft more unnerving and atypical compositions,” I have to wonder if they succeed a little too well in the vocal category. Lake’s abrasive phrasing and strident tone threatens at times to overwhelm individual songs. For the most part, I find his talk/shout fits appropriately with the music, even if it re-enforces in my mind just how vital the multi-vocalist approach of Fugazi was by contrast. Unfortunately the two song stretch of “Sell Down the River” and “Human Filter” sees Lake tip just over into obnoxious territory. On those two songs in particular, the vocal performance reminds me of a more aggressive version of another Twin Cities product, Craig Finn, who’s affected delivery has always felt like the sonic equivalent of a supremely punchable face. Enjoyment of Negative Sound will, for many, hinge on how the purposefully grating vocals sit with you.
This is a difficult album to score. I love the angular compositions and tight instrumentation, and can, for the most part, tolerate the vocals, but the latter wear me down by the time I’ve finished the album. I’d be remiss in my critic duties if I didn’t acknowledge that this is exactly what the band set out to do, and it’s hard to penalize them for their success. This is smart music. It’s easy to respect even when it isn’t easy to enjoy, although I also enjoy it a lot in doses. As detours from metal go, I can recommend taking this one.