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The noisy, distorted and reverberant roars wielded in the funeral dirge of ‘Zero Day’ were the first tastes we received from Nothing’s third album, this month’s ‘Dance On The Blacktop’. That first ominous track was and is a grand, sweeping piece about welcoming the eventual end; about getting caught up in thoughts of existential dread; and about the past as well as life’s bumpy journey until that last curtain call arrives. Given the life experiences and band circumstances for guitarist/singer/songwriter Domenic Palermo, the themes of regret, death, finality and darkened optimism heard across this new LP aren’t all that surprising.
Domenic had an isolated childhood, played in hardcore bands like Horror Show, and also served a two-year jail-time before Nothing was even an idea for a stabbing altercation. In a moment most bands cannot say they’ve shared, prior to 2016’s impressive ‘Tired Of Tomorrow‘, Nothing had to terminate their contract with Collect due to the label’s ties to shitty PharmaBro Martin Shkreli (re-signing with Relapse in December 2015). And, perhaps most importantly, in May 2015, the frontman was awfully beaten by a group of men following a Nothing gig in Oakland, California; a horrible bashing that fractured his eye-socket, skull, spine and even partially severed his right ear too. That brutal attack left Domenic with permanent brain damage, dolling him with a tentative Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE); a grim yet manageable neurodegenerative disease that affects people who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries. (The worst part is that he may not know whether he actually has it or not until it’s diagnosed posthumously). All of these definitive life instances, along with positive changes in his personal life and the band being on better terms, form up their latest body of work, ‘Dance On The Blacktop‘. A strong release that also looks to the future and whatever it might bring, as the band’s coffin/logo burning album trailer perhaps hinted at back in May.
‘Dance On The Blacktop‘ is a striking and haunting nine-track listen more often than not. Honestly, listening to a lot of these songs felt like I was viewing overcast yet slightly sunny days through grainy 8mm film. It’s gloomy, a little depressed even, but there are definitely rays of hope and closure shining through at times. It really is a character study of the Nothing frontman’s past, health, habits, life, and feelings; one that will hopefully be remembered dearly for the sheer honesty that Domenic has expunged and offered up. For that, at least in of itself, is incredibly commendable. While not all good art requires it to be created from tragedy and pain, some of the best art often is. And I’d be lying to you all if I didn’t even remotely feel fucking selfish for enjoying music derived from a man’s most painful life experiences.
‘Dance On The Blacktop‘ is indeed a familiar yet still powerful, emotionally affecting dream-pop/noise-rock/90s-era shoegaze combination. With thick and fuzzy bass work from Aaron Heard (also of Jesus Piece), dry and steady drum performances from Kyle Kimball anchor down Domenic and fellow guitarist/songwriter Brandon Setta’s over-driven guitar chords that suitably swallow up other mix elements. All with harmonies glittering away in the background, as the frontman’s dreamy, reverb-drenched vocal lines float onward like reflecting light off the deepest, bluest instrumental waters. In fact, sonically speaking, this album would easily be the rawest and most dynamic on-record iteration of Nothing’s sound thus far. To the point where you can hear the actual room acoustics in the drum tracks, as well as the noise-floor hum and buzzes from the amps in certain passages too. I think a lot of that comes down to producer/engineer John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, The Breeders), save for the album’s vocal overdubs, live tracking everything last year in a famed Woodstock New York church-turned-studio before the album was later finished back in Philadelphia. His production touch here just merges so well with Nothing’s own musical approach and influences, making for the kind of producer-band partnership I’d love to see continue well into the future.
Nothing does shed some of their more expected sounds here to get a little bit grungier, like on ‘I Hate The Flowers‘ or ‘Us/We/Are‘. For me, while this song duo is still nicely slathered up in distortion and reverb, they are without a doubt the weakest moments of what is otherwise a pretty damn solid album. (Don’t @ me. I just cannot get into those particular cuts, including the upbeat, bubbly third song, ‘You Wind Me Up‘, either). However, it’s instead tracks like bonafide standout ‘Blue Line Baby‘, the stellar ‘Zero Day‘, and the mesmerizing ‘(Hope) Is Just Another Word With A Hole In It‘ that play up their strengths infinitely better. Songs that I’ve personally gravitated towards the most, and songs that might leave the greatest lasting impression on others too, I feel.
That being said, the lethargic tempos and droney sounds of ‘Plastic Migraine‘ do admittedly hit a sweet spot between Smashing Pumpkins-like grunge and Slowdive/My Bloody Valentine-esque dreamy shoegaze. Elsewhere, the Graham Greene inspired ‘Hail On Palace Pier‘ sounds exactly like its namesake; like you’re standing alone on a forlorn pier looking out at some melancholic British oceanic mass as hail plummets around you. It’s airy, it’s ethereal, it’s moving, and above all else, it’s well-done. Also, the aforementioned ‘Blue Line Baby‘ (inspired by Shakespearean heroine Ophelia), in particular, is an absolute gem. Kyle’s eighth-note snare rim-shot patterns that give way to simple but rocksteady 4/4 grooves create a wonderful songwriting foundation. A blueprint from which well-timed pedal stomps, some beautiful arpeggios, and erupting guitar melodies are able to launch you through some utterly cosmic soundscapes. Seriously, this song’s melting chorus of “Messy living/I could sleep all day…” should hopefully go down as one of Nothing’s best creations. It’s just classic Nothing, and it’s fuckin’ killer!
One stunning moment for this record actually comes at its penultimate stage. The ringing guitar notes, swirling atmospherics, repetitive tom hits, booming percussion, and sparse minimalism of ‘The Carpenter’s Son‘ sees Domenic lament his own inner-conflict following his estranged father’s passing. It’s a nearly-eight-minute-long slow-burner of a track, a dire and emotional piece that’s more in-tune with loneliness than full-blown distorted explosions, with the lyrics nailing that mood too: “I don’t wanna know why I’m alone/Nothing’s a surprise.” The album then ends with the genuinely epic closer, ‘(Hope) Is Just Another Word With A Hole In It‘. This is basically a shoegaze lover’s wet-dream; a dense, magical, awe-inspiring rock hymn that closes out the record fantastically so. For just as how ‘Dance On The Blacktop‘ sharply rose from the morbid grave earlier with the impeccable ‘Zero Day‘, ‘(Hope) Is Just Another Word With A Hole In It‘ carries you off to the crushing void in fine fashion.
‘Dance On The Blacktop’ is like a funeral parade of tragedies, yet that’s what makes it a gripping listen. Minus a couple of bung tracks that I just cannot for the life of me love (‘Us/We/Are’, ‘I Hate The Flowers’), Nothing have still crafted a solid dream-pop/shoegaze record with plenty of loud, earth-moving noise-rock moments and some minor grunge leanings too. Just as how this album’s cover artwork, starring model Chelsea Hudson wearing an off-putting face mask, there’s often always something deeper brewing just beneath the surface of things. So, if you dig beneath the thick layers of reverb and distortion that these rockers put forward, you’ll find a record bleeding it’s heart out from deep emotional wounds, grim life experiences, but also it’s own unwavering human honesty. Amongst all of the noise and wall-of-sound instrumental waves, there really is a kind of Zen to be found here, and that’s the real beauty of ‘Dance On The Blacktop’.
Blue Line Baby
You Wind Me Up
Hail On The Palace Pier
I Hate The Flowers
The Carpenter’s Son
(Hope) Is Just Another Word With A Hole In It
‘Dance On The Blacktop’ is out August 24th via Relapse Records.