Who will like it: Fans of Mastodon, Intronaut and The Mighty Boosh. People who like to color outside the lines, and then on the walls.
Who won’t like it: Fans of the human voice. People who like to label song sections as “verse” and “chorus.”
by Neil James
Imagine that you’re ambling through a sunny countryside. Your gait is slightly unsure, its certainty robbed by cheap whiskey and unmet expectations. Beyond defying your maker’s calling, your journey has no purpose. Eventually, after all sense of orientation has dissipated, you come across a stone obelisk bearing a desolate face. Its blank eyes become aglow as it prepares to transmit ages-old secrets through its piercing stare. As the connections between your neurons and muscles begin to break down, your body falls to its knees. At the same time, your consciousness swells, transcending location and time.
That exercise in psychotropic meditation reflects my best attempts to capture the surly, uncompromising imagery evoked by the above track – “Hammer Party” by Cymothoa.
The songwriting core of Cymothoa, guitarist Jef Ries and bassist Justin Boehne, have an extended history with Cwn Annwn. Ries’ and Boehne’s breakthrough project, Less Than Nothing, actually shared the stage with us at the 7th Street Entry for the Method Of Murder CD release show back in 2006. Upon the dissolution of Less Than Nothing, Ries and Boehne formed Lavinia, an act similar at its core but less beholden to the conventions of traditional songwriting. After losing their vocalist, Lavinia slowly transitioned into Cymothoa, a three-piece instrumental outfit whose artistic allegiances extend to no one beyond its members.
I once visited Justin and Jef in their practice space, and I remember the above graphic being scrawled on their whiteboard. While not exactly a controversial statement among those who’ve taken lessons or studied music theory, it stuck out in my mind. It surprises me how many bands will spend countless hours practicing sweep licks or dialing in their amp settings, but somehow fail to grasp the rhythmic subtleties that differentiate pedestrian from great acts.
And Cymothoa’s grasp of rhythmic subtleties extends far beyond differentiating triplets from dotted quarter notes. Throughout the band’s debut EP, Cymothoa displays a mastery of advanced metal concepts: seamless tempo changes, polyrhythmic looping and machine-tool caliber riffing precision.
Cymothoa’s command of metal riffage is highly evident on Snake Denim which blends the modern American thrash barrages of Lamb Of God with the disjointed mash of accents and staccato stabs made famous by Mastodon and other progressive acts. Just as impressively, the band smoothly transitions out of its complex compositions into tasty grooves, highlighted by a sophisticated, melodic chord progression that bears the scents of functional-addict era Stone Temple Pilots.
Sesame Street Fighter begins with a series of white noise waves lapping at the shore of an onslaught to come. A Kreator-esque “verse” composed of a flying flurry of power chords paints a landscape of aggression Randy Blythe himself would be proud to spit acid over. The song concludes with a thunderous earthquake of detuned insanity that threatens to rip the earth apart at its fault lines before descending into a Call Of Ktulu-esque fadeout.
One of the challenges an instrumental act faces is that you’re foregoing what is often a band’s most distinctive quality – its vocalist. But the mark of great instrumental, a mark that Cymothoa routinely hits, is that it’s not difficult to envision a variety of vocal stylings. Little effort is required to picture Brett Hinds or even Ozzy caterwauling over the chromatic 16th note slap fights and sneering atonal holds. A clean interlude that sounds like it was ripped from the notebook of a zombie redneck Billy Corgan provides a welcome respite before the song devolves into the chaos suggested by its chimerical title.
In a world of 140-character hot takes, Hollywood remakes and Bitstrips, the likelihood that the worlds of a sophisticated, progressive instrumental band and commercial success will ever collide is remote. But faced with the tradeoffs required to achieve the watered down mainstream success of Five Finger Death Punch and Bud Light, Cymothoa has thankfully opted for the path of self-fulfillment. Those of us with taste and an appreciation for craftsmanship look forward to many years of introducing the band as one of the Midwest’s best-kept secrets to others.