That clamor and din you hear coming from Portland isn’t the usual traffic, road construction or crowds. Nope, mixed in with the aforementioned usual hubbub, you’ll hear a different sort of racket, this one created by bass, guitar, drums and the human voice. This can only mean one thing: Portland noise rockers CUSS have awakened from their slumber to once again terrorize Portland’s local music scene with a cacophony that is uniquely their own.
But wait…what’s that? Bubbling under the surface of the usual CUSS roar…could it be…hooks? And…dare one even suggest it….melodies? Who is this band??
If you’re unfamiliar with CUSS, noise rock is indeed the perfect label for this band. Their previous full-length album, High Gravity, was a textbook example of the genre, with plenty of atonality and dissonance on display, not to mention a subtle yet biting sense of black humor. All these trademark CUSS elements are still solidly in place on their newest release Heavenly. But whether intentional or not, there seems to be a slow but definite evolution going on here. And though the band still has both feet firmly planted in the noise-rock camp, they’re not afraid of a little structure either.
The production is still of the lo-fi variety, and the bass of Sean Ferrante and drums of Elijah True still dominate the mix. But the main riff of opening track “Baby Face” is downright catchy, and it’s not until the snarling, growling vocals of Alexander Merrill kick in that one realizes they’re actually listening to something much noisier than more melodic underground rock. Granted, there isn’t a traditional verse and chorus structure at work here, but there is nonetheless a certain memorable quality to the riff that, while light years away from pop is about as close a CUSS has come so far to any sort of pop hook. This neither a good nor bad development, but it is intriguing.
The band’s wicked sense of humor is on full display in “Thirst Event,” with vocalist Merrill taking on the role of deranged Costco employee ready to aid those in need during any and all drink-related emergencies. A pinky riff from guitarist Dan Smith propels “Holding It Down,” while the rhythm section locks into a tight groove, all of which forms the perfect foundation for Merrill’s caterwauls. A drastic tempo change after the half-way mark gives Smith a chance to showcase some of his more melodic sensibilities.
The sinister drone of “Trip Crystal” would sound right at home on a Tool album, and Miller’s echoing howls give this track a definite spooky vibe. That is, until the mood is broken in hilarious style by a “rap” from Miller. There’s even backing vocals on this open that are actually sung! “Spider-Spider” and “No Winner” have similar lurching qualities save for another melodic interlude from Smith on the latter. “The Man That You Love” shuffles along at a funereal pace until about four minutes in, when it explodes with a metallic fury that’s one of the most satisfying musical moments on the album.
The album climaxes with the eight-minute “Feeders,” a slow, building dirge that starts off in an almost Black Sabbath sort of way, building on a feeling of impending doom as it crashes along through a series of loud peaks and valleys. Merrill actually sings on this one, and it’s surprisingly not half bad. Final track “On The Nose” ends things in the CUSS style we’re used to hearing, with a droning, feedback-laden opening riff that evolves into a repetitive pattern over which Merrill delivers an almost spoken-word rant that is as humorous as it is dark.
There’s a very subtle but still palpable sense of forward motion on “Heavenly.” Like their previous efforts, this latest CUSS album doesn’t give up it’s secrets easily; it requires a concerted effort on the part of the listener, and if this is the listener’s first exposure to noise rock, it may be tough going the first time through. But it feels as though CUSS may be on the cusp of something truly unique here. This may be the first stage of a creative entity slowly evolving into something new. And cusp albums often tun out to be the best albums. Stick with CUSS of a little while. Based on what they’ve given us on Heavenly, it may just be worth the wait.
Stream the album for free or download it for $5 at cussptldmaine.bandcamp.com/album/heavenly
Rick Johnson is a freelance writer and radio host from Westbrook. He can be reached at email@example.com