As a genre, sludge has it tough. As the oft-neglected son of the more well-established sounds of doom metal and hardcore, sludge often seems trapped in relative obscurity compared to other thriving and evolving scenes of the past few decades. Whereas, for example, black metal has consistently expanded its worldwide hostile takeover and even threatened to explode into mainstream consciousness in recent years, the sludge scene retains a distinctly workman-like demeanor, with even flagship bands plugging away in small clubs, indifferent to market trends or the siren call of bigger fame and fortunes. Plenty of breakthrough acts borrow from sludge on their way to grander stages: Mastodon liberally incorporated sludge elements in their sound, particularly in their pre-The Hunter discography. And stoner acts like High on Fire and Kylesa have proudly worn sludge on their respective sleeves, even as they incorporate it into a broader, smoky doom soundscape. And of course, these are just a few high profile examples of bands successfully integrating sludge elements into a hybrid sound, but they help illustrate a bigger point: traditional, unadulterated “pure” sludge feels like a genre on the retreat, even as metal bands continue to blend sludge characteristics into any number of sounds, from to stoner to noise pop to post. Sludge is frequently the sonic bridesmaid, but rarely the bride.
And even if Northless’s new album doesn’t completely overturn that narrative, it does offer a compelling argument that sludge deserves more respect as a standalone genre. Last Bastion of Cowardice is a blistering, ugly, and uncompromising collection of tracks that assaults all comers for a full hour, hardly allowing for even the occasional brief respite for listeners – or the band – to catch their breath. The guitar tone is chunky and thick, the ever-leadened mid-pace tempo frequently erupts into a thrash/hardcore gallop, and Erik Stenglein’s horrific, throaty screams keep an air of torment presiding over the entire proceedings. This is truly menacing stuff: from the ripping opening moments on “The Origin of Flames” to the epic, anguished finale of “Rotting Days,” Northless sounds like a band on a mission of terror with their sights set on targets both internal as well as external. Never a band to shy away from the inherent anger in their sound, Northless seem almost resigned to despair now. Whereas Stenglein & Co. were previously content to watch the “world keep sinking,” Last Bastion of Cowardice’s anguish seems to come from a place that’s more interior, as if the insanity and pestilence of the world at large have infiltrated the band and began a rot from the inside out. Nasty and brutish, for sure, and married perfectly with the monolithic, incessantly churning, wall-of-sound palate of the album.
Northless are often categorized in the “post” side of the sludge spectrum and, it’s true, the band isn’t afraid to incorporate longer stretches of melody that crescendo into righteous, occasionally beautiful and angry climaxes. Particularly on World Keeps Sinking, the band incorporated enough disparate elements to their sound to break up potential monotony and incorporate a more cerebral edge to the murky mire. And while there are very occasional moments of relief and atmosphere on Last Bastion of Cowardice, the overwhelming impression left by the record is one of a colossal, all-encompassing mass of sound that bludgeons one into submission. So much so, in fact, that the rigid ferocity presented by the album may prove too exhausting for some listeners. The sound is consistently ferocious, perhaps to a fault: there are portions of the album that feel indistinguishable from others and a lack of sonic diversity makes the album seem, at times, impenetrable rather than inviting. Even for listeners predisposed to immense sludgy fury, the 10 lengthy tracks of Bastion run the risk of being too dense and occasionally indistinct as the album goes on.
Even with that potential caveat, Last Bastion of Cowardice is impressive for its uncompromising execution of a bleak, hard-hitting slab o’ sludge that lingers with listeners long after the running time. The vibe and substance of the record is oppressively sinister but massive, head-nodding riffs like the ones that anchor “Their Blood Was Always Mine” and “Godsend” help keep things sonically engaging and – dare I say – something occasionally very close to catchy. With their third full length effort, Northless seem content to embrace the merciless intensity of their sludge sound wholeheartedly. Whether or not itwill do much to expand the band’s fanbase, Last Bastion of Cowardice is a record that – for its steadfast, intense sound and purity of focus – certainly deserves some damn respect.
Last Bastion of Cowardice will be released on November 17, 2017 via Gilead Media.