Dream Squasher by -(16)-Release date: June 5, 2020
Label: Relapse Records
-(16)- are one of those bands where it makes no sense to me how they’re not far more lauded by listeners of metal, especially if you love the sub-genre they operate in: sludge. Perhaps the band’s name is too oblique for most, but it really cannot be overstated that these guys are as good as, and as important as, pioneering acts such as Eyehategod and Crowbar. The quintet are closing in for their thirtieth anniversary and one can only hope that their eighth full-length record, Dream Squasher, might be the album that finally gets them the respect they rightfully deserve. They have been critically acclaimed many times before and – spoiler alert – they’re going to be again in this review, but it’s the time their music reached and polluted far more ears than they have thus far.
The San Diego band have always had an album cover visual aesthetic that didn’t really chime with me, except for the interesting 2016 cover for previous LP, Lifespan of a Moth, but their employment of Marald Art to create the visually arresting cover for this new ode to despair is a fantastic decision, immediately marking this album out as something different. The cover is both detailed, strange and disquieting – a perfect mirror to -(16)-’s artistry. Sludge can be unfairly pigeonholed as a no-brainer sub-genre, based on heavy hitting distorted riffs and whisky-soaked gruff vocals, and while that’s all true, the best bands suffuse the tracks with detail, dynamics and deeper meaning.
Before we move on, to get stuck into some of the tracks on this beast, I think it’s well worth lifting a quote from the press pack provided by Relapse. Guitarist and principle vocalist Bobby Ferry had these words on their approach to Dream Squasher: “A conscious effort was made to inject positivity into the lyrical themes. The best we could come up with is loving your dog so much, you’d end up killing yourself if the dog dies.” So, yeeeeaaaah… This isn’t the album to listen to after your most recent therapy session.
The album starts with three incredibly powerful tracks in ‘Candy in Spanish’, ‘Me and the Dog Die Together’ and ‘Sadlands’. Highlighted as the “focus tracks” in the press pack [I find this an utterly bizarre practice, by the way…], I was a little worried that the album had been front weighted by these and might lose momentum quickly. So, first things first, the entire album is killer, and there are plenty more highlights. That all said, it’s admittedly an incredibly powerful trio.
‘Candy in Spanish’ sounds like vintage Helmet, if Helmet refused to move away from their amps, and, in so doing, enveloping the whole track in a swathe of feedback. It’s a crushing, formidable opening statement. The previously alluded to ‘Me and the Dog Die Together’ is absolutely furious, snapping its neck in all directions, reading to bite the hand that feeds as well as that which egregiously punished it. ‘Sadlands’ then suddenly sharply pulls the handbrake while travelling 70mph, causing the band and listener to go into a tailspin, as we move to a slow-paced Sabbath inflected vista populated with clean vocals that wouldn’t sound out of place on Stoner Witch era Melvins.
The fact that this opening salvo is pieced together so expertly immediately showcases how smart the band are and how sublime the production is on this record. The drums in particular are some of the best defined I’ve heard on a sludge metal album for quite some time. There’s a true balance to Dream Squasher – an equilibrium attained at all stages, all in spite of how utterly dizzying the timbre of the tracks are or the musical terrain traversed in such small amounts of time.
‘Harvester of Fabrication’ returns to the breakneck speed of the track before, an utter assault on the senses. No less savage is the central spine of the album, the six minute ‘Acid Tongue’ that broods and then unleashes hell on the eardrums. It’s by turns lumbering and then utterly caustic blasts of nihilism define what is then to come in the second half of the album. ‘Agora (Killed by a Mountain Lion)’ and ‘Ride the Waves’ take it in turns to turn flesh into a wet, bloody pulp before album highlight ‘Summer of 96’ unleashes its fury upon the world. Don’t be fooled by its feel-good title, this is a track that is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It slides into view, riding a groove-laden riff before erupting into a kind of autobiographic bile that will make the hardiest person wince. It’s utterly disgusting and everything I love about sludge.
‘Screw Unto Others’ changes the pace up yet again, moving into a frenetic punk-infused sound, unleashing a diatribe of loathing and scathing guitar and bass interplay. Like bringing a knife to a shootout and winning with a million well-placed, too-quick-to-be-felt-or-seen cuts, it’s a rousing three-minute stomper before -(16)- slow things down for the denouement that is ‘Kissing the Choir Boy’, a track so loathsome in all those most glorious of ways, that to go into too much detail would spoil it. Let’s just say that rather than waking slowly from a nightmare, you only open your eyes to a more intense, new scene of that same horror show. It’s lashed with reverb-drenched guitars, driven inexorably forward by clattering drums and the vocals wash in and out as the production devolves to its inevitable end.
Dream Squasher is yet another fantastic addition to the band’s already significant discography and further cements -(16)-’s pedigree as one of the best sludge bands on the planet right now.