DAILY RECORD: Harvey Milk – A Small Turn Of Human Kindness (Hydra Head Records)

by | May 16, 2010 | MUSIC

A listener unfamiliar with Harvey Milk will likely find the band’s newest release either monolithic or monotonous, depending on his or her taste for minimalism. Despite many of the sonic excesses the band revels in – the ten-minute songs, the down-tuned dirge, the abrupt timbre changes – they are masters of restraint and of subtlety, possessing an ability to synthesize influences without sounding like anybody besides themselves. Whereas many prominent bands on the heavier end of the musical spectrum fly the flag of their particular aesthetic proudly – the droning plod of Sunn 0)) or the nouveau-prog noodling of Mastodon come to mind – Harvey Milk have displayed a tendency to shy away from such rigid definition.

A listener unfamiliar with Harvey Milk will likely find the band’s newest release either monolithic or monotonous, depending on his or her taste for minimalism. Despite many of the sonic excesses the band revels in – the ten-minute songs, the down-tuned dirge, the abrupt timbre changes – they are masters of restraint and of subtlety, possessing an ability to synthesize influences without sounding like anybody besides themselves. Whereas many prominent bands on the heavier end of the musical spectrum fly the flag of their particular aesthetic proudly – the droning plod of Sunn 0)) or the nouveau-prog noodling of Mastodon come to mind – Harvey Milk have displayed a tendency to shy away from such rigid definition.

The aforementioned minimalism is the key idea with this particular album. The band seems to spend more time hovering in the spaces between notes than they do actually playing, letting waves of chords ring out and crumble into feedback, each time threatening – but never succeeding – to subsume vocalist Creston Spiers’s desperate howl. It is a technique they used to great advantage on albums like Courtesy And Good Will Toward Men and My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment Of What My Love Could Be – but relegated to the sidelines for genre experiments like the muscular ZZ Top-influenced Pleaser or the elegiac doom-pop of Special Wishes. For diehard fans fearing an easy throwback to their most lauded material, this could be a point of contention. There is a certain aesthetic hollowness associated with artists who desperately attempt to swim against time’s currents to retain some of their earlier glory, but anybody who has paid any attention to Harvey Milk’s back catalogue should know the degree to which the band simply does not give a shit about what anybody might expect of them. Their early-90s albums championed burly sludge-metal in the Athens, Georgia music scene better known for R.E.M. and Vic Chesnutt. Their (perhaps ill-advised) forays into more classic-rock oriented material essentially flipped the bird to anybody who thought that they might have the band figured out. And as Harvey Milk approaches two decades as a band and has settled into something resembling the comfort of renown (stream the newest album at NPR’s website), it makes sense that they would attempt to confront the relative accessibility of their previous few albums.

If nothing else, the band succeeds at making some of the most difficult music they have ever committed to tape. Each song plods away, for the most part resisting the dual temptations of picking up the tempo towards a more rock-oriented direction or dropping the wall of noise in favor of a gentler approach. A less patient listener might find this needlessly reductionist, but the record’s more single-minded approach at times seems akin to dragging a rake through a Zen rock garden – focused, contemplative, and deliberate. The album’s few concessions to standard rock and roll moves, such as the layers of harmonized lead guitars on “I Did Not Call Out,” punctuate the sturm und drang of the record, as does the fragile coda of “I Know This Is All My Fault” which abruptly shifts the aural assault to a piano passage which would not be out of place accompanying some German Expressionist film. This ability to texture their sound, to shine beacons of melody through clouds of discordance and gloom exemplifies the sort of eye-of-the-hurricane approach which has been at the heart of all of Harvey Milk’s best material.

While both Spiers’s vocals and guitar playing often sound like a wounded animal, the album provides more than simple sonic discomfort. While previous albums have demonstrated a sort of smug detachment and oddball sense of humor alongside dour, wounded performances (Courtesy And Good Will Towards Men juxtaposes songs like “The Boy With Bosoms” and “My Broken Heart Will Never Mend”), their newest release is an exercise in uncomfortably blunt pathos. Perusing the track list almost feels like looking at the table of contents for a book of Faulkner short stories, with titles like “I Alone Got Up And Left,” “I Know This Is No Place For You,” and “I Just Want To Go Home” displaying an unadulterated emotional bluntness uncharacteristic to their work. Simply reading the song titles almost feels voyeuristic, as if each was a small snippet of a conversation not meant to be overheard.

While A Small Turn of Human Kindness undoubtedly bears more than a passing resemblance to Harvey Milk’s earlier albums, it is hardly a cheap throwback. Their sound, stripped of aesthetic outliers and smug irony, possesses a fragility which does nothing to undermine how gut-wrenchingly heavy the album is. And while heavy music often defines itself on a relationship with destruction, with references to crushing, destroying, and killing making their way into a million band names and lyric sheets, Harvey Milk’s brand of metal is one that is more akin to having already been crushed, destroyed, or killed – resignation over rebellion, a deep sigh rather than a scream.

R. Anthony Harris

R. Anthony Harris

I created Richmond, Virginia’s culture publication RVA Magazine and brought the first Richmond Mural Project to town. Designed the first brand for the Richmond’s First Fridays Artwalk and promoted the citywide “RVA” brand before the city adopted it as the official moniker. I threw a bunch of parties. Printed a lot of magazines. Met so many fantastic people in the process. Professional work: www.majormajor.me




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