Noise rock is alive and well in Maine, thanks to the Portland four-piece band Cuss.
“High Gravity” is an angry howl of an album, but in a minimalist, arty and definitely humorous sort of way. It may take some getting used to, even after multiple plays. But persistence pays off, and the patient listener will be rewarded with a truly unique musical experience.
The dominant sounds on the record are the twangy, chugging bass of Sean Ferrante and the vocal stylings of Alexander Merrill. Ferrante plays repetitive bass lines that would sound right at home on an ’80s hardcore album. Many of the songs actually feature very little guitar, so Ferrante’s bass is often played like a lead instrument, as is the case on the lead track, “One Off.”
This is also the track where we first become acquainted with Merrill’s voice, and a surprisingly elastic and versatile voice it is. Merrill is capable of any number of menacing growls, anguished howls, frightening bellows and exasperated whines, often delivered with a healthy dose of sarcasm and black humor that balances things out and lets a tiny bit of light through the very dense musical atmosphere.
When the guitar of Thom Cote makes an appearance, it’s usually in the form of short dissonant chords — chords that almost act as angry exclamation points to whatever very intense point Merrill is trying to express vocally. The guitars on songs such as “Weight Loss Plan” have enough heft and sharp edges to take them into a realm that’s almost metal, but they scuttle back to art noise just before you can really get a good head-bang going.
The whip-crack snare of drummer Elijah True never wavers from the beat, whether it’s the steady galloping march of “Great Pair” or the funereal, dirge-like “Living Problem.”
“Living Problem” also features Merrill’s most intriguing vocal performance. There are spoken-word bits where he almost sounds like some deranged ’50s beat poet.
But those moments quickly morph into a chaos of swirling emotions, only to transform yet again into some sort of cacophonous one-man play, with Merrill conjuring up voices of a condescending dad and a “just grin and bear it” mother figure. A bit of crunchy guitar takes the song in a completely new direction yet again, definitely making this track the undisputed centerpiece of the album.
The album closer, “Vampire, Cancer,” is about as close as Cuss gets to any sort of “traditional” song structure, with guitar, bass and drums actually locking into a tight little groove for part of the song — only to dissolve into glorious chaos yet again by song’s end as Merrill moans of cancer, chemo and his “radiation state.” Certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but fascinating nonetheless.
If you’re bored with the same old verse-chorus-verse song structure and feeling up to an angry musical adventure, give Cuss a try. “High Gravity” may not get your toes tapping, and you certainly won’t find yourself whistling any of the album’s hooks afterward (because there aren’t any).
But it’s guaranteed to be completely different than anything else you’ve heard lately, and that’s worth a listen any day.
Visit cussptldmaine.bandcamp.com/album/high-gravity to preview the album and download the tracks using the band’s “name your price” system.
Rick Johnson is a freelance writer and radio host from Westbrook. He can be reached at: