First off; super geek level esotericism and ages NC-17(?) and up warning. Nonagon is a band forged in the fires between post hardcore, math rock, and screamo in the fertile delta of the Chicago aughts. Since then they’ve adhered to a fiercely dedicated integrity and obsession with writing fantastic short songs with unexpected time signature changes overwrought in complexity so finely worked out they only release about an ep’s worth of these terrific songs every 4 years. As a result, every single production they’ve released since they began warms. our. bones. To hear music that sounds like the constant noise in your head is a transcendent level of empathy that lets you know, there are others just like you! Granted they may be far better at getting those sounds out of their instruments and conveying those feelings, but we’re at least cousins if not straight up siblings. We walk around with a soundtrack of thought in our heads uncannily matched by the music that comes out of specific nearly impossible to discover magical circles and wonder, how’d it get in there too?! Everytime I hear Nonagon that’s exactly what I think (and also fuck I wish I was that good at it but I know I’m not willing to give it as much time and energy as these incredibly dedicated musicians (a term I do NOT use lightly) obviously must do).
Secondly, an important note about Nonagon’s packaging of their releases over the years; stylistically brilliant in the way it… creates a mood (does that sound right to you? Fuck I’m not going to make every word of this article perfect — it’s not like I’M in nonagaon). All of the artwork is produced by bass guitarist and clearly quite accomplished visual artist Robert Gomez. All 3 ep’s and this full album include the signature highly idiosnycratic artwork of Mr. Gomez’s creations. One could write an entire review about the artful presentation of their latest record ‘They Birds’ (wow did it really take me until now to mention the actual title of the record!?) including front and back covers and what appears to be a small hymnal with notes and lyrics all artfully presented alone. All have a late 19th century explorers/biologist’s transcriber vibe that clearly encapsulates a highly abstruse inside joke that only the band themselves understand (for further info read the interview!). Various animals outfitted with rudimentary flying apparatuses (“They Birds”, or the “Magestic Creatures of the Sky”) grace the intricately busy and ingeniously clever cover of the album, aptly foreshadowing what lies on the black circle inside. Point is, if you’re gonna buy this album, definitely buy the record. You won’t be dissapointed. Much as I’d like to write an entire review of the elaborate artwork, you probably want to hear about the music…
This offering differs from Nonagon’s previous releases most markedly in being slightly less harsh and angular. Which, if you’re a fan, you know means it’s still indelibly harsh and angular at many if not most points. However, where previous releases leaned more towards post-hardcore and at times forms resembling what was once called ‘screamo’, the tracks on this album lean more towards more ‘mature’ indie/college and post-rock forms, focussing more on melody than the early ep’s. Passages are often spoken-sung and at times sung, even including parts with harmonies instead of all full volume screams. Which does nothing to dilute the intensity that is Nonagon, but rather increase its dimensions… also the majority of the lines are still shouted at the top of singer/guitarist John Hastie’s lungs.
The album begins with Tuck the long Tail Under, which would definitely be the lead single if they released one. If this were 30 years ago when really good music had an actual chance to make it to late night MTV, Tuck the Long Tail would rival Jawbox’ Savory in its immediate and unique appeal (for those of you under 50, when I and many others saw the video for Jawbox’ Savory on 120 minutes I ran out to buy the album the next day. So what I’m saying is a teenage version of me today would do the same thing in response to hearing Tuck the Long Tail Under, if there were still JUSTICE in the music industry). Similar to all of their works, it’s a beautifully complex piece that really captures opposing harsh and soft dynamics and blurs the lines between them. If you’re a long time punk rock fan this song will definitely make you nostalgic; like a cross between mide period husker du and a midwestern screamo band. Broadly speaking the lyrics describe something that’s been tried and judged wanting. Not that the judges were impartial nor the trial fair; “We misssed the mark. The perspective is slanted”, nor does it stop them in any way “We toe the line to forget what just happened, and tuck the long tail under”. Like a metaphor for Nonagon’s career, unappreciated but inimically brilliant, unceasing, and instead of giving up constantly working harder and getting better.
As much as I’d like to continue a song by song (note by note really) analysis, I’ve been told by my bosses and editors that I really need to stop doing that if I ever want anyone to actually read my reviews. So it’d be fair to summarize Slow Boil as one of their signature unrelentingly complex yet incredibly catchy pieces. I’m guessing the third track, The Family Meal, is going to be a lot of people’s favorite. As touched on previously, Nonagon traffics in a deliciously ecclectic post-hardcore that firmly reminds one of mid nineties post-hardcore DC Dischord groups like Fugazi and Jawbox with fascinating minor key adventures from their regional contemporaries like Minutes. Which sets the perfect tone for this tune about a ‘Family Meal’ at which something, if not everything, is very clearly not right to really fucking disturbingly wrong.
Hack and Salt continue the complex jarring stabbing and sliding motions of intricate guitar and drum work yet contain enough clarity (i.e. not an excess of distortion or redlining in the production) to be melodic and accessible enough to approach June of 44 style post rock (I’m trying very hard not to label them with the largely derided ‘math rock term’, but yeah, that too). Salt in particular has inimitably catchy super complex back and forth series of angular slides.
And whether I consciously or not mentioned June of 44 before getting to the track titled ‘June of ’14’ or whether Nonagon was making an offhand reference to the Chicago math rock supergroup who will ever know? The track certainly bears similairities to a June of 44 song, beginning with a fascinatingly dark and pensive riff on both guitar and bass that spreads out to Shellac/Fugazi like driving rhythms and then proceeds to move quickly and constantly back and forth between the two. It’s also a great example of the unpredictable off kilter drum beats and fills Tony Aimone’s famous for in his approach to odd time signatures and changes.
Jeff(s) is another unpredictable track that begins at a bridge then runs through its many different parts (I lost count at around 6), everyone of which has SO MUCH going on despite there being only 3 members of the band. Boxes is another track which could be a single given how relatively straightforward and catchy the riffs, melodies, and breakdowns are (I hear echoes of, believe it or not, drama club math rock band Faraquet), then ‘Swing Goat’ goes back to the unpredictable type that starts at such a strange angle then transitions seamlessly between complex math rock rhythms and dynamic shouting and slightly sung vocals.
By the Holdouts, it feels as though exhaustion is setting in at a complex beginning, but of course an energetic lift follows. The overall effect is, of course, jarring to say the least.
Bells is a perfect closer, “Set aside but still alive” leaving us in a state of exhausted minor key inertia where “no lung can deny the truth in the lie, son” where we “lose on all sides”.
I can’t imagine what has and continues to sustain Nonagon through all these years without anything approaching the international renown and critical lauding they deserve. Perhaps it’s that every note they put together is an intense labor of love, a struggle with the maddeningly complex and unappreciative bitch goddess of music made with so much fervor, vitality, and sincerity it’s criminal that everyone that truly loves music doesn’t know about it. Or that they feel a responsibility to their work as scientists from an elite laboratory where a rich history of thousands of previous and contemporary midwestern rustbelt independent rockworkers ply their signature sounds in deep underground esoteric niches recognizably steeped in fellow precedents in a language known only to those of us that have intensively studied whatever small pieces of it we can get our ears on. And yet we’re a disparate bunch strewn across the western world — my greatest hope in writing this is that I’ll reach a few more of us out there to let them know that Nonagon’s ‘They Birds’ is something so great that if they didn’t know about the group before now, they’re an essential part of the diet of the kind of music that people like us can’t get enough of. Thanks Nonagon for another great record!