Celestial Gang / Silentist Review

Story online since:  24.04.2009 / 18:41:41

When I first heard what Celestial Gang Records out of Portland had to offer, I was mildly amused at best, annoyed at worst. But the more I listened to the music, I grew to appreciate it. Grindcore is the main idea here, but there is much more than that going on. The label kindly mailed me a bunch of material from three bands"”Silentist, Knelt Rote, and The Better to See You With. They are all fairly abrasive bands and, according to Silentist mastermind and Celestial Gang owner Mark Burden, are only mildly representative of a vast number of grindcore acts operating in Portland.

"There's a world of them here," Burden said. "I can't keep track of them all."

Silentist is pretty cool, The Better to See You With is an art-noise project that incorporates grindcore, math, technicality, noise, samples, and a whole mish-mash of other things, and Knelt Rote is pure grindcore with bad production. Now that band, Knelt Rote, is totally all about going completely crazy. You've gotta admire the energy required. But I want to hear a better mix and more musical precision when recording. Less craziness on guitar, but keeping the speed. Grindcore can be so sweet when it's lo-fi.

However, I hear from a little bird there's another writer for who likes them more than me.

Having been exposed to Celestial Gang, I believe I have stumbled upon a small, local scene in Portland, Oregon the rest of the world may be largely unaware of.

When I called Burden April 7, he was cleaning a house he was in the process of moving out of, one he had lived in for "Way too long, like four or five years," he said. "I'm kinda like finally free of this house."

Celestial Gang started out with a few people, many of whom had to quit for various reasons, such as having kids. "By and large, it's me," Burden said.

"It's actually going really good," Burden said, sounding surprised at his own words. "I'm doing way more mail order than I can handle."

Burden is also the driving force behind Silentist, filling in the roles of live and studio drummer, in-studio pianist, bassist, guitarist, both lead and backup vocalist (depending on the album), and principle songwriter. Burden plays "An old upright grand," as he calls it, when concocting albums. And when the band plays live, rather than hire a keyboardist or truck a huge piano onstage, the piano parts are run through a PA while he drums, while vocalist August screams and Dustin plays bass.

The studio setup is tricky, Burden said. "The idea of doing acoustic piano with really loud drums is sort of a bad idea. We end up using four to six microphones, and you have too many overtones," Burden said. Silentist is going for a more natural sound, and Burden is not as interested in cleaning up those overtones as much as distributing the full power of his playing. He rarely uses delay. "It's mostly all just played with 10 fingers," he said.

When I listened to House on the Hill EP, Nightingales EP, and the newest, self-titled full-length, I heard a lot of oscillating and horror movie-type sounds, and occasional guitar parts complimenting the main force of the piano and drums. Most of those additional sounds are sacrificed when playing live, Burden says, in the name of a more stripped-down, raw power sound.

Large influences for Burden are modern composers Gyorgy Ligeti and John Cage. "It's stuff that tends to veer off into more of the atonal and experimental," Burden said. Ligeti, he said, is probably the biggest influence on his piano playing.

Also influential is Gorguts, a Canadian death metal band. Burden recommends the album Obscura (1998). "It's kinda legendary in some circles for being amazingly composed," Burden said. The album's influence played heavily into the last record.

"I was really into the first black metal I heard, like Celtic Frost, Bathory, and Mayhem. I was really into blast beats," Burden said. "I liked how, when beats got that fast, they were sort of amorphous. It didn't really matter where the tempo was at."

This explains where the blast beats from the grind and black metal families come from in Silentist, beats Burden peppers throughout his pieces. However, being a lifelong musician has taught Burden a thing or two about tempos, and when the beat occasionally strays into obscurity, it usually seems purposeful.

"I grew up playing piano. My mom was a piano teacher," Burden, 31, said.

Silentist can sometimes sound, especially on House on the Hill EP (2006) and s/t (2008), like a lot of complaining, but it's all dependent on what type of music listener you are. It's performed with lots of screaming, atonally dissonant piano, horror movie-type oscillator tones, and drums. It was aggravating to me at first. But when I hear the band now, I hear a hard-working set of young men making music that does not sound like much of anything I've ever heard a rock band attempt. I had to allow Silentist to take me out of my comfort zone to see what was going on inside their music. Now I appreciate and respect them, even if they don't make sounds I prefer to listen to on a regular basis.

However, Silentist are really pushing their luck. I mean, I'm a pretty open-minded guy musically, and I can see the beauty in music that may appear ugly on its surface. I mean, isn't that what metal is about? I like my weird musics, and Silentist is making its own type of weird sound. They're original. It's hardcore and grindcore and black metal, ambient and experimental, with a very prominently featured real (acoustic) piano. That's cool no matter how you slice it. But the music this band makes almost seems designed to drive the listener away. The idea, it seems to me, is that those that don't turn the cd off/ walk out of the show are the ones Silentist wants listening to them. It's a weeding out process. My point is, this shit is hard to listen to sometimes.

Nightingales EP (2004) showcases a side of Silentist that is not so harsh, though there is still a metal influence. It starts with Kimono Mask, an intense piece that might be described as black grindcore, because those drums are really going crazy. The time signature is 7/4 for the main riff. It builds on itself during the beginning and ending. By the 5:00 mark he's brought out another cool piano riff, after a long, slightly softer part in the middle. If these were power chords on guitar it probably would not sound as cool. At this point in the song I realize the ambient noise in the background was actually a guitar doing very unconventional things throughout the whole piece. By the second track he's actually playing guitar riffs and it sounds cool with the piano being rocky and jazzy, dissonant and melodic.

The third song, Nightingales, is pretty insane and pretty cool. The guitars sound like the keyboards in Radiohead's How to Disappear Completely, and the drums and piano are going off in cool rhythms. It's very hyper, and also calculated. The screaming is pretty black metal when it comes in after a few minutes, and on this EP, it's all Burden"”every instrument. At the very end is where it spirals into madness with the piano going solo and just doing a lot of crazy shit.

The fourth song is a pretty straight grinding rock song. Heavy distortion. Now I notice there's a bass guitar involved, and is featured pretty prominently in the mix during this album closer, Power Lines. Hm. I like that title. Fits the theme of the music"”the musical lines they're throwing are powerful, and not in a conventional metal sense, and it's also, like, electrical power lines hanging in the sky. There's a bit of a garage rock sound to this song; a bit of that undeniable energy of the lover of big, brutal, beautiful sounds. Burden is tight on this song. It even sounds a little like Dazzlingkillmen near the bombastic ending.

You know, at first Silentist annoyed me. I think it's because House on the Hill EP is, well, annoying. Ok, let's throw that cd in and see what we get. Well, the first song, Cut, starts with a low bass drone and some drums and some Om-like singing. Okay, pretty cool. I zone out. Okay, and then the second song is at the 3:15 point and I realize the drums are doing something pretty repetitive and not exactly hard to do, and the guitar or something is making a really high-pitched uncomfortable noise, the vocalist is screaming with lots of reverb on his voice, and there's additional bells going on. This is just a sample of what I call Those Beautiful Uncomfortable MOments of Silentist.

Silentist gets more stripped down the older they get. Nightingales EP is my favorite, but maybe that's because I tend to veer towards more comfortable, conventional rock styles oftentimes. That was Burden's first record as Silentist, performed entirely on his own. The band's sound naturally changed as vocalist August (the loudest vocalist Burden says he has ever worked with) and bassist Dustin joined, but it was a gradual change. There is even an EP I haven't heard that Burden says is more rock- and jazz-influenced, and sounds more up my alley.

For the next album, Silentist are in the writing process, and are unsure what's going to come of it, but the idea is to figure out where to take the band's sound. Nothing seems to be set in stone for them, so for the next record, simply expect "¦ more Silentist madness.

A release date? "It'll probably be a while," Burden said.

As for what to describe his band as, as far as traditional labels like "rock" or "jazz" or "grindcore" go, Burden is at a loss. He does not like to pin down the band's sound. Avant-garde, however, is okay.

"It's actually one of the phrases I'm totally cool with," Burden said. "We're trying to do something that's not normal."

Burden says that response to the band has been both positive and negative. Every show he plays, besides all of them being regularly well-attended, he says, there are those who really like it, and those who really do not. Burden maintains a light air.

"There's kids that have emailed us in the past, and totally thought we were the worst band in the universe, and I'm fine with that."

Glenn Doom

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