The break room at my real life place of employment has one of those old glass globe candy dispensers. It’s full of candy and only costs a nickel, but it goes largely unused by employees. No, not because millennials have never seen a nickel and the machine doesn’t take Venmo. It’s avoided because some sociopathic agent of chaos filled the thing with a mix of M&Ms and Skittles that are almost visually indistinguishable. Sure, both are independently enjoyable, but something about the idea of accidentally tasting them in combination, or getting one when you expect the other makes people dubious. The new eponymous album by Lafayette, Indiana’s The Mound Builders is the musical equivalent of this conundrum of expectations.
The Mound Builders contains a sludgy mix of stoner doom and bare-knuckled hardcore. This seemingly antithetical combination can be jarring, and I admit I was not on board after my first couple times through the album. On opener “Torchbearer,” a mid-paced Crowbar-esque groove complete with popping bass warms things up for about a minute before the tempo takes an upturn. Thirty seconds later, Jim Voelz’s unhinged vocals announce to one and all that he’s here to harsh your buzz. At this point, readers may be tempted to interpret this as run of the mill metalcore, but that would be a mistake. Rather, The Mound Builders are influenced by a throwback brand of hardcore with punk baked into its DNA. Think Victory Records pre-millennium, with a quasi-breakdown or two, gang shouting and “whoa-oh”ing peppered throughout the album.
By about my third or fourth listen to The Mound Builders, something began to click. Styles that at first seemed to clash sounded well integrated. The central stoner riff of highlight “Separated From Youth” would tuck nicely into any Sleep album, but harsh vocals keep the intensity torqued up enough that it doesn’t bring the overall energy down. Songwriting subtleties reveal themselves in layers, with brief, bluesy guitar moments hiding just under blasts of aggression. Thrash sometimes comes to the fore, with “Hair of the Dogma” and “Star City Massacre” keeping the proverbial foot on the gas in the Buzzov•en vein, but these more straightforward compositions tend to be the weakest.
The vocals on The Mound Builders will be a limiting factor for those members of our readership who are allergic to –core screaming or vocals processed on equipment shared with –core screaming. To his credit, Voelz varies his approach, but the results are decidedly mixed. When he goes for the guttural tough guy delivery, he sounds like Phil Anselmo straining every vein in his neck, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The most egregious examples of this occur on “Regolith” and closer “Vanished Frontier.” There are also moments in nearly every song when Voelz goes full pterodactyl with strident, high-pitched screams that many here will likely decry, but I thoroughly enjoy. Then again, I also enjoy Stavros Giannopoulos’s shrieking for The Atlas Moth, so to each their own.
While I warmed up to The Mound Builders’ specific mix of Skittles and M&Ms after several listens, I fully expect there will be others holding on to their nickels for less conflicted candy. For the adventurous, the first two thirds of the album keeps things lively and surprising with its mix of relaxed and aggressive styles, but the last three songs bring things down a bit vocally and musically. The vocals especially are, as our own Mr. Huckster said, “definitely a matter of preference,” but if you don’t mind a little sludge doom in your hardcore or vice versa, you could do worse than The Mound Builders.
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 256 kbps mp3
Label: Failure Records
Websites: themoundbuilders.bandcamp.com | themoundbuilders.com | facebook.com/themoundbuilders
Releases Worldwide: January 18th, 2019