USA, the United States of America. A country unlike any other, loved as often as it is hated, admired as it is pitied, monolythic as it is diverse. Though Europeans like me enjoy rubbing in the relative shortness of the country’s history, that history is still ripe with cultural fruits. One of these fruits is of course music, the artform every pilgrim, slave, slave owner, blue collar, white collar and president could appreciate. The slaves brought roots music, from which sprang blues and rock ‘n roll. Finally, the mixture of roots music with rock yielded Americana, a genre encompassing such classic names as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Creedence Clearwater Revival. On their debut American Scrap, Chicago quartet Huntsmen blend Americana with a progressive take on searing sludge metal. But can they do justice to the self-proclaimed Greatest Country in the World?
I must admit it strikes me as funny that my first thought about largely acoustic opener “Bury Me Deep” went to “Pigs on the Wing” by Britain’s Pink Floyd. However, it works to set up the languid melancholy the album purveys, leading seamlessly into “Pyre.” Huntsmen quickly reveal themselves marvelous musicians; even though the oscillating feedback used to first break the calm isn’t my favorite, the track layers stodgy riffs and wonderfully full-bodied and audible bass, stretching up into a climactic haze of solos, mid-paced Mastodon riffing and piledriver drums. Vocalist Chris Kang is perfect for the band, conveying a hint of Springsteen’s everyman with the gloom of Katatonia’s Johan Renkse, and his warm clean tones contrast with his Scott Kelly-like roar. The guitars swerve between massive riffs, gentle acoustic plucking and wailing, feedback-laden solos that go for the gut instantly. Though the drums seem stoic initially, they evolve organically into a propelling cascade without getting overly flashy.
The songwriting, however, is the real star of the album. Huntsmen are masters at setting up the songs and progressively adding layers of heaviness, peaking with colossal riffs and emotional solos. Highlight “Atlantic City” is an absolute ripper, bursting out the gates with rapidly ricocheting drums, shimmering post-rock tremolos and a thunderous riff, tuning down to dreamy nostalgia, then slowly rebuilding a feeling of dread. It crescendos back into that opening maelstrom, overlaid with Kang’s strong vocal work. Even the lesser cuts have plenty to offer, like penultimate track “The Barrens.” It does display less of the knack for constructive songwriting, centering on a halting, chuggy riff and featuring a less pleasant, hardcore-styled shouting style. But the last act builds into a blistering, layered groove that mostly makes up for the track’s shortcomings.
One of the common tenets in Americana is storytelling, oftentimes about life’s hardships, and most common in protest songs, with Springsteen and Neil Young two prominent examples. Huntsmen take that example to heart with poetic stories injected in their lyrics, from a short and brutal life in the coal mines on “Canary King” to a summer’s night gone violent on “Atlantic City.” But closer “The Last President” takes the cake. In a husky voice that may or may not be a nod to Marilyn Monroe’s birthday song, Chicago local Aimee Bueno morosely describes the last day of the President on the day of nuclear Armageddon, addressing the nation before euthanizing her family and hanging herself. The minimal lyrics and instrumentation make way for waves of gut-wrenching solos and desperate, crushing riffs. A powerful way to end an excellent album.
You don’t have to be an American citizen to appreciate American Scrap. At turns melancholic and furious, small and gargantuan, gentle and crushing, Huntsmen have compiled a highly dynamic album filled to the brim with strong hooks, powerful vocals and expert rhythmic variety. The songs are meticulously constructed, building from its acoustic roots, layering distortion and textures to reach mighty crescendos. Its honest, blue-collar attitude, gleaned directly from its Americana roots, precludes manipulative tricks, and the near-flawless execution proves the band does not need them in the first place. You don’t want to miss this gritty journey across the land of the free.