Unsigned and Unholy: Merchant Carry On the Heavyweight Legacy of Melbourne Sludge
My first doom/sludge show was something of a religious experience. The sticky humidity of early fall in Appalachia rolling in through open club doors; the ubiquitous stench of marijuana fused delicately with the faint aroma of perspiring 20-something men; a patient anxiety as we waited for the local legends to emerge from a year-long hibernation and bring forth the riffs that so exalted them amongst the few remaining ‘heads in the area. It all combined to give my half-lit younger self a head rush dragon I’ve yet to stop chasing. As the aural assault of endless droning waves swept over me, I realized the bands I’d been listening to at home held a magic I couldn’t recreate in my headphones: the ability to physically nauseate me in a way that verged on arousing.
Like the American South, Australia is a place with a tumultuous, violent history that gets hotter than the gates of hell pretty fucking regularly. If the icy winds of the North bring forth the likes of Immortal and Gorgoroth, it would follow suit that the heat of Down Under spits out acts like the makers of what is currently topping my favorites of 2016, Merchant. I’ve always held a deep belief that this type of music — the heaviest I’ve found — comes from the South (Weedeater, Eyehategod, Acid Bath, etc) and was maybe a result of the atmosphere itself, both physical and social. The impenetrable dampness of the swampy riffs speaks directly to my most innate animal rumblings, but it never struck me to consider the fact that Australians might feel this too until I stumbled upon one of my favorite records of 2015, the devastating Radiant Moon EP by Melbourne’s Watchtower.
Merchant call themselves “a psych-drenched sludge quartet hailing from Melbourne,” but the lead track “Seed & Soil” from their upcoming full-length debut Suzerain sounds a lot less like the dreamy introspection that comes to mind when I think of psych, and more like an exhaustive trudge through the murky swamps of hell populated by the rotting putrefaction of long-dead sinners’ corpses. The sound is pure nightmare, and if you have ever found comfort in fully facing that which terrifies you, you’ll understand how beautiful that can be.
The rest of the album, slated for an April 18th release, reaffirms Merchant’s expansion into a darker, weightier incarnation than their first showing with last year’s demo, Seismic. The drums are, at times, more tribal (think Primitive Man, not Sepultura at their nu-est), the guitar tones are filthier, and the vocals are buried in a way that makes them feel like a fifth instrument, a subconscious primal scream that hits you with the same gut-wrenching intensity as any riff or heavy-handed triplet tom fill could. The twenty minute title track is the linchpin here: I usually find anything over 8 minutes fairly punishing (and not in the enjoyably masochistic sense), but here I find growth and depth and evolution, as if the music is a snake shedding a tight skin that refuses to budge. Somewhere around 4:35 the serpent breaks free, and what follows is unadulterated vile cacophony.
Recorded at Goatsound Studios (home of aforementioned Watchtower and current Weedeater tourmates King Parrot) “Seed & Soil” from the upcoming “Suzerain” can be streamed on Merchant’s Bandcamp page.