Nails Bathe in the ’80s On You Will Never Be One of Us
The last Nails album, Abandon All Life, is one of modern metal’s masterpieces: eighteen minutes of music so ridiculously, deeply heavy, that they were basically making an avant-garde artwork. It’s the kind of album that even my normie/indie friends have a soft spot for – reaching a crossover appeal similar to the modern incarnation of Swans, long-running noise bands like The Body, or upstarts Full of Hell.
I’m not sure what’s going on in the DNA of music culture right now, but for some reason, these insanely extreme bands are almost tapping more into a mainstream sensibility than they are the hardcore scene itself. Which makes the theme of Nails’ new album title – the perceived exclusivity of extreme music, which is actually inclusive – weird to consider. And I’m sure from many people’s perspectives, the theme is more vital than ever before. Pitchfork mines the depths of extreme metal for content creation; Justin Bieber apes metal design aesthetics on his tour merch; flannel-girls and glasses-boys flock to Saint Vitus Bar.
What’s interesting is how the themes of Nails’ lyrics parallel the themes of the musical style they’re playing on You Will Never Be One of Us. As the band made clear in their making-of documentaries for new label Nuclear Blast, the influences on this album are the primal aggression of ’80s Slayer and the rhythmic foundation of ’90s Sepultura. To be clear, this isn’t dad-thrash, but at the same time, Nails are harkening back to a time in underground music when the lines between punk, hardcore, thrash, death, and everything else were actually drawn in the sand; as opposed to now, where from the perspective of the “metal intelligentsia,” everything is just content to be consumed.
This is Nails by way of classic metal, for sure. Drummer Taylor Young’s snare – a GCI instrument built for him by Kurt Ballou – is a fatter, more mid-range drum than we usually hear on modern metal records (outside of like, Mastodon or Baptists). The drums sound less like pingy rhythmic punctuators and more like the tribal sound of Arise. Todd Jones rips out Dime squeals, dissonant Kerry King solos, and chromatic single-note runs. Bassist John Gianelli doesn’t run all over the neck, but sits comfortably in the pocket, as though he’s playing the drums on his bass. His performance really sticks out to me, particularly on the (mostly) mid-tempo “Made to Make You Fall” and “They Come Crawling Back,” which demand that the stringed instruments lock-in tightly.
But since this is a Nails album, the guitar tone is the foundation. Most bands these days record the drums first (to a scratch guitar track), then lay down the bass, THEN record guitars. Nails went in the opposite direction, starting with guitars, and it shows in the sonic palette. This is an album built from the outside-in, around the sounds of Todd Jones’s guitar playing and Kurt Ballou’s collection of amps and cabs. As familiar as the grooves and riff patterns might be, it doesn’t really sound like anything else out there, even by the standards of a Kurt Ballou/God City album – the closest frame of reference I have is the intricate sonic construction of the last The Armed album that Kurt did, but even that is far afield from this. Nails clearly put a lot of thought into how they wanted this thing to sound, and the end result is surprisingly way different from what they were going for on Abandon All Life.
Like Behold the Arctopus, Nails are aware of how exhausting a listen their music is, and respond in kind. They don’t punish you with an hour (or even half an hour) of this shit – they cram literally every ounce of their being into minute-long songs. Riffs fly by; breakdowns are dropped faster than Beyonce HBO specials; the album’s over before you’ve had a second to breathe. Todd and Kurt have been making music together for long enough that they know how to deliver a record that satisfies, challenges, and push-pulls in the right directions, and this is an adeptly crafted batch of songs.
This is a fantastic album, for sure, and I commend the band for stepping out of their comfort zones in many respects. I love how the band is playing together after years of making music, and I admire how good at being Nails they’ve become. However, I loved Abandon All Life because it scared me in the same way that Reign in Blood and “Black Sabbath” did when I was 13 – and the artistic achievements of that album were in how Nails accessed the spirit of that music more so than the actual styles. Nails have clearly matured as songwriters, performers, and recording artists on You Will Never Be One of Us, and I’m not going to judge a band for trying something different (even if on the surface it appears similar).
So this is a very good album by a band that I think is capable of even more tremendous achievements. It’s certainly not a step-backward, but it is a step side-ways. I’m curious to see where they go next.