These cherubs dote on death.
Austin, Texas-based noise rock prodigies Cherubs released their second post-reunion album, Immaculada High, on July 26. This release comes on the heels of 2015’s 2 YNFYNYTY, their first release after a lengthy hiatus spurred by a spat between drummer Brent Prager and guitarist/vocalist Kevin Whitley. Cherubs is a unique microcosm of what America – and more specifically a rundown Texas – was feeling at a time when we were all allegedly experiencing an economic boom.
In 1992, Nirvana had taken the music scene by storm with their abrasive, yet accessible, sound, splitting the United States into two camps: Those who felt they had a voice in their music, and those who were confused by what they were trying to say. It was the perfect moment for a band like Cherubs, even more aggressive and callous in their racket, to make a statement. While their first release didn’t gain much traction, 1994’s Heroin Man quickly became a cult classic. It was a heart-wrenching (and ear-splitting) testament to the life of their friend who had passed from a heroin overdose, offering a sincere glimpse into the lives of people who felt forgotten and dispossessed by the rapidly changing world around them. It’s a feeling many of us know all too well.
High is the most appropriate descriptor of the album, with its growling textures and sonorous wails creating a soundtrack that both pays its respects to the raucous noise of Heroin Man while giving us a deeply atmospheric glimpse into the future of a band that has very obviously not exhausted its artistic juices. Whitley, Prager, and McMahon (on bass) display an accomplished sense of cooperation on this record, a far cry from the Cherubs whose relationship was tenuous enough to cause a split over a pre-show brawl between Whitley and Prager. On High, no single member of the band seems anxious to steal the spotlight, each cacophonous element of every track operating in spine-crushing, marching unison, all drenched in the characteristic layers of washed-out, ephemeral haziness that have defined all of the Cherubs’ work to date. On Immaculada High, we’re hearing the Cherubs as they’ve always wanted to be heard: a band with unmistakable artistic clarity hiding behind an addicting curtain of distortion.
“Turista” is the record’s first song, opening with the pattering of just slightly off-kilter drums. The few quiet moments we have with Prager’s opiate-slurred toms hardly prepare us for the onslaught of sound that follows, a violent churning of down-tuned bass and a clattering of hats reminiscent of a fully-set dining table being overturned. Few moments are so musically satisfying as the tortured drone of a guitar drunkenly sauntering across a scale during the second half of the song, just before Whitney resumes his babbling with relish, wavering at times between incoherent cries and bone-chilling moments of intelligibility, calling his own body “barely a home.” These mad mumblings don’t strike one as simply the uninspired products of severe drug abuse; rather, the hopelessness that pervades Immaculada High’s bleak world sounds more like reflections on life as we all know it ourselves. In many ways, “Turista” is the perfect opener, capturing the themes, leitmotifs, and direction of a work without spoiling their potential.
The next track, “18 the Number,” is barely two minutes long. Its brevity is befitting of a song that opens with a convincing sense of urgency; its few rests exist only as vehicles for highlighting the unresolved tension created by its own discordance. Healthy amounts of fuzz follow Whitley’s jagged riffs and impassioned murmuring – two members of a violent mosh against suffering. It’s on these short slices of Cherubs that one gets a sense of how relatable they might be; yes, Whitley is clearly railing against the sorrow he caused by virtue of his own drug abuse (and that of his acquaintances), but is it not true that everyone has made decisions they regret? The answer doesn’t matter; you’re given a few seconds of snarling feedback before the song ends and such contemplation is overtaken by catharsis once more.
This is followed by “Sooey Pig,” the album’s lead single. The feedback of the previous track is toyed with, modulated, fed through even more pedals, and then morphed into a disaffected guitar riff of its own. The percussion on “Pig” takes more cues from metal than punk, with a delicate syncopation of hats taking on the unlikely role of the song’s backbone. Prager is far from afraid of the rest of his kit, however, sprucing up the song with insistent plodding on the snare, kick, and toms where he thinks a little extra noise is needed. “Pig” is one of the album’s more resigned tracks. To call it melodic might be a bit of a stretch, but a clear underlying structure gives the song the groundwork needed to play with intricacy; fuzz and feedback are no longer actors in a show of sonic force, but are instead the machinations of a track that would not be out of place on an early ‘90s grunge record. “Pig” leaves us with multiple moments to relish just how thoughtful Cherubs’ composition actually is; far from pure noise, each song is a carefully crafted ride. This shines bright on “Pig,” with the tension built up by dreariness abandoned by the downstepping of the song’s outro.
“Tigers in the Sky” follows a classic Cherubs formula, awash in blunted, squared bass and an unrelenting tidal wave of drum that plays cleanly off the final notes of the previous song. This unbridled wrecking ball of tone is the perfect launch pad for a curiously invigorating bassline and a kind of darkened prayer to tigers in the sky. Who are the tigers in the sky? Inventions of Whitley’s own imagination? An opioid daydream? God himself? Whoever they are, they’re moving enough to deserve their own chorus of thrashing. Maybe that’s the only way they want to be seen.
“Imcg” is a departure from the album’s previous sound, held together by a sludgy bass groove and haunting reverb. One could make a reasonable comparison to Bjork if she were a smacked-out Texan man, weaving dense tapestries of sound that walk a fine line between grating and soothing. “Imcg” is Cherubs at their best, proving that their motivation is not in ugly downpours of vicious noise but in an evasive kind of beauty, one hidden by the surface disappointments and cruelties of a world that we are both fortunate and unfortunate to have been born into. Optimistic is a strange word to describe the attitude of a song on a gristly, post-noise record, but there are no other words more befitting of “Imcg.” Even in its own dreariness, the band betrays a very real hope for things to change for the better, marked by a shift in tone in the middle of the track towards sustained chords amidst droning harmonics, a musical ode to the feeling of weightlessness. “Imcg” gives us a rare moment of satisfaction, returning to the original bass hook of the song at the end with an additional buzzing flourish. It’s a reminder of how things were.
Next, we’re graced with “Old Lady Shoe,” another song which comes in at under two minutes. “Shoe” opens almost as if it intends to be a classic rock song; it’s an effective diversion, given that it makes the ensuing minute of thrashing seem intriguing by comparison. While there is much to be said in this album’s favor, the Cherubs seem to have a problem with ingenuity on some of their deeper cuts. While the first few songs are composed of what would be staccato licks if they weren’t drowned in reverb and delay, and are energizing and shocking, they become difficult to appreciate when their only source of originality lies in bait-and-switch openers and Whitley’s anachronistic, almost teenage vocals. “Shoe” could be appreciated on its own at a rundown house show, but it comes across as somewhat trite on an album that is otherwise consistently impressive.
“Breath U Can C” succeeds in being thick by virtue of its own sparseness. Barely perceptible modulation gives a buzzy drone an intoxicating quality as it carefully walks between overtures with more form, which mainly consist solely of drum until about the halfway mark. Whitley’s vocal performance is remarkable; his full range is on display, soaring far above the low and mid-ranges that dominate the band’s songwriting. On “Breath,” an effort was clearly made to make each section distinguishable. Wherever there is no contrast in tone, there is reprieve; Whitley may take a break from singing or strumming, or Prager might skip a strike on the tom in favor of a shaking hi-hat. This song’s title speaks truth to its own name: Like a hearty musical soup, the workings of each instrument create a fog of breath that we most certainly can hear – and see.
“Cry Real Wolves” is a track that exudes a raw power alongside a strangely potent sensitivity. Where other tracks on the album take a more random approach to some of its noises, allowing flowing drones or skull-rattling harmonics to swirl about, an industrial focus is present in “Wolves.” Not once does Prager relent on a driving, full-force percussive march except to switch cadences midway through, nor is there any sign of Whitley giving us a moment to breathe between a repetitive, rattling guitar overture that doesn’t get old in spite (or perhaps because) of its simplicity. This endless symphony is occasionally interrupted by pleading, almost broken vocals, desperate to be heard in the midst of this waltz to the edge of a cliff. These cries are a warning offered by real wolves; perhaps wolves of our own design.
“Pacemaker” clocks in at 1 minute and 39 seconds, tying with “Old Lady Shoe” for the shortest track on the album. And unfortunately, much like “Shoe,” not much happens on this track. Whitley sounds a bit more impassioned than normal, but overall, this is another slice of muddy distortion that would perhaps have served better as a muted interlude, or worked into another, more musically diverse track. To call both “Shoe” and “Pacemaker” filler might not be entirely fair, as their short lengths and formulaic approach serve as touchstones between what would have been juxtaposing songs, but one can’t help but feel that not much would be missed had they not been included. After all, it’s that same juxtaposition and brashness that makes much of this album stand out: Whitley’s adolescent wailing over the top of churning, apocalyptic rock; psychedelic grooving as the backbone to an oddly hopeful, sustained ode; or even occasionally inappropriate caveman slam by Prager on the drums. If anything, these short tracks serve only as reminders of the true spirit of experimentalism: If you’re going to do something new, try not to fall back on tradition when you run out of ideas.
“Full Regalia” is the penultimate title on an album that seems to go by very quickly. A minor-key melody followed in tantalizing unison by both Whitley and McMahon on their respective guitar and bass creates an atmospheric, if not slightly catatonic, introduction to a track that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. It is that uncertainty that makes this song so satisfying: Each half-connected section is entirely fleshed out in its own right, devolving about two-thirds of the way through into a lush, headbanging masterpiece that would, without a doubt, inspire anyone within earshot to either start stomping or break something. Staying in character, the Cherub boys then snap the neck of their own track, allowing it to fade out in a delayed, wah-wah-esque fashion. You can only prance about in full regalia for so long.
“Nobodies,” the final and longest track on this album, is full of the same chaotic energy that made most of this record so breathtaking: Enraged thrashing flails alongside unidentifiable samples of noise that leave one to wonder if they were produced by an instrument or by an errant telephone wire dangling just above the mixer board. “Nobodies” is Cherubs at their sludgiest, yet their most insistent. It is a rare and awesome sight to behold when a band proves that age and time have not weathered their artistry, but rather seasoned it. The anger and dismay that one would have heard on Heroin Man is always front and center throughout this record, but at the same time, the temperance of years has aged their sound like a fine wine. “Nobodies” is both a rager and a relaxer, interspersing its mad sounds with ghastly ambiance and just enough scratchy squealing to keep things interesting. The song ends with timeless recollections of the world we live in, one gripped entirely by paranoia, fear, and disillusionment, yet tinged nonetheless with a kind of golden sunrise on the horizon that even the most disaffected – such as, say, a band founded precisely because of the opioid epidemic – wouldn’t dare to say they can’t see.
Yes, it’s high. Yes, it’s immaculate. And let us all hope these cherubs keep making noise.