In the mid-90’s, Cathedral was turning into a household name in the realms of British doom. The steaming, sleazy groove of the quartet was best described as the midway point of Black Sabbath, Clutch and Mötorhead, and has seen its fair share of progeny (like The Necromancers, for instance.) Unbeknownst to many, the band had a side project simmering away in the form of Septic Tank, which was often mentioned between the members but was kicked down the road as much as that novel you intend to write sometime. Five years after Cathedral‘s dissolution, the side project has sprung back to life with three of its original four members, including bassist Scott Carlson, guitar player Gaz Jennings and vocalist Lee Dorrian, along with new member Jaime Arellano on skins. An astounding 24 years after the project was first mentioned, its debut album is released. Was it worth the wait?
The most important course of action right now is to flush your brain’s cache of all styles and genres associated with Cathedral. The members are the only connection between the two bands. The first clue is in the track length: 18 tracks are crammed in the 40 minute span, only 2 of which break the 3 minute mark, putting this closer to Lee Dorian’s time in Napalm Death than his doom legacy. Rotting Civilisation is a love letter to the high energy thrashy hardcore of Discharge and Extreme Noise Terror, whose motto may as well be “barge in, fuck shit up and storm out cursing.” The guitars are harsh, stark and crackling, leading to speculation whether the recording equipment received the baseball bat special. The drums are similarly tuned, the snare and hi-hat the frontmost elements. Apparently, low-ends are for bellends, because the bass drum sounds almost like an afterthought, without the usual oomph in the pit of the stomach, and the bass is so heavily distorted it barely registers as a bass at all, rather supplying a layer of low-end static in the background. Everything about Rotting Civilisation is set up for a harsh, gritty, angry, shoot-a-panda-in-the-face experience.
And shoot a panda in the face they do. The tracks mostly follow a simple strategy: play 1 or 2 riffs fast and loud while Dorrian screams and sneers his lungs out, spewing vomit and bile over politics and social issues with raw, uncontrolled aggression. With regularity, the tracks descend into chaotic flurries of snare hits and guitar destruction, starting with the verses on the self-titled opener or the aptly titled “Fucked.” On these moments, all good nature leaves Dorrian’s voice amid spit-flecked rants (“Whitewash,” for instance, is an absolutely livid attack on antifa: “So the anti-fascists are the new fascists!”) Septic Tank achieves some variety with injections of wry humor (“Social Media Whore”) as well as sudden dirges that aren’t quite breakdowns, including the curiously mid-paced “Death Vase” which reads more like a sludgy stoner track than thrashy hardcore. Along with the short track length, these flourishes ensure the album remains fresh.
Most of the shortcomings have more to do with the style at large, rather than this album specifically, and I’ll readily admit how very far from my ballpark this is, so fans of old school Discharge and company will probably want to take this paragraph with a grain of salt. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more one-dimensional form of metal. The riffs are simple, 3 to 4 note affairs, merely played at lightning speed. The vocals are unpolished to the point of appearing unrehearsed, as if the album was recorded in a single take. The production would then place that single take firmly in a garage box on shoddy equipment, thanks to the massive amount of static crackle and lack of low-end instrumentation. But these are admittedly par for the course, and the effect is an unbridled shitstorm that gets directly up in your face.
And in the end, that barebones, raw energy is what won me over. Rotting Civilisation breaks all the rules in the book: it’s as dry as a dehydrator in the desert, the production is so treble-heavy I thought it didn’t have a bass for a while, the vocals are as raw as a newborn lamb, and it’s more one-dimensional than an E.L. James character. But it’s that unstoppable, rambunctious approach that makes the whole thing fun to listen to anyway. The wild, untamed enthusiasm the veterans of Septic Tank exude is as infectious as the plague that will one day wipe out mankind and leave nothing but a rotting civilisation.