Bearing an offering of sludge and hardcore (think a heavier, less inherently psychedelic version of Fugazi), San Francisco’s Kowloon Walled City offer a stark, depressive view of urban decadence in their latest album, Container Ships. The band’s name comes from a section of Hong Kong that is essentially one large, dense red light district, and this compliments the imagery the band naturally conjures with their tendency towards simple, cyclical grooves. The notation here is deceptively sparse, and conversely, quite rich as it weaves its murky, clanging web, creating overcast musical skies with every riff, spiraling out into the greyness of unthinking modernity. That’s not to say every selection is inherently memorable, but the overarching aesthetic here is quite appealing, especially if you tend to reside in the more depressive end of the emotional spectrum.
It’s worth noting that Kowloon Walled City are more distinctly sludge than they are sludge ‘metal’, effectively. The vocals, especially, may prove a high barrier of entry for those more used to the more conventional trappings of extremity. They’re vaguely redolent of some earlier Mastodon or High on Fire, but the clean, upper-pitched atonal yell of guitarist Scott Evans bears more similarity to what one would expect from progressive hardcore than anything one might find in metal. Not to say it doesn’t fit the music, it certainly does, but it’s an important caveat to mention. The musicality here thrives of effective minimalism, a steady pounding out of amorphous urban disparity, led by some truly inspiring work on the bass guitar, courtesy of one Ian Miller, who is my favorite element of this project. The whole of this foursome, however, play an important role, as the deceptive simplicity of the individual notes coalesce into something more, something strained and frustrated, pounding out measured aggression into the cold, misty thermosphere. The riffing here feels very rich, with a texture like ocean fog, swirling and billowing above the steady rhythmic waves of the drums. Sometimes they layer these churning grooves and eerie, dissonant melodies together, and this is very effective whether they’re doing so in hypnotic, contemplative calm or anguished pounding, two distinct modes that play off each other to create effective pacing throughout the album. The 35 minute length is also a smart move, as it wards off any sense of stagnation. The natural timbre of this music is so thick and downcast that it feels much longer, so as a whole it feels about right.
If I may be selfish for a moment, this is the very reason I love running a reviews site. Kowloon are quite far outside of my regular field of study, as it were, but have proven a delightful little discovery; by no means a game changer, but a sweet example of the quality to be found in the underground, in any genre. Their strained frustration and tense, earthy grooves create a palpable atmosphere that is very unique to them, with well-composed songs that thrive on innately different textures colliding and coalescing into something more compelling than its constituent variables. There is a lot of creativity in the notation, and as noted previously, the consistency and thickness of aesthetic is in and of itself very enveloping.
Given the darkly artistic nature of the music, I would have really liked to experience the lyrics, which I have a feeling could be integral to the artists statement, but unfortunately, I was unable to obtain them, so there’s a variable in this picture that’s missing. Take that as you will. For better or worse, this is also an album that should be taken as a whole, as there is a sense of slowly drowning in its melancholy depths that is an integral part of the experience. Some people will absolutely love it, and others will find it rather taxing on their patience. I liked it, and I believe that others seeking a heavy, artful release will as well, so long as they do not require it to be strictly metal. It takes a number of listens and a degree of concentration to fully appreciate Container Ships, but if you put in the effort, you’ll find a ponderous, rewarding adventure that thrives on feeling and nudges some musical boundaries. Some selections are more poignant than others, and it’s more consistent in motif than it is in overt memorability, but there is a lot of room to grow here. In all, Container Ships is an effective submersion into the power of tone and atmosphere, and while Kowloon have a ways to go in reaching audible immortality, this will be a probable delight for those with an open minded outlook on heavy music, or just in the market for some grooving, deeply-textured sludge.