Nonagon’s ‘They Birds’

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).

They Birds front cover — now that’s ‘detail oriented’!

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!

-k. Sonin

Trigger Cut’s ‘ROGO’

Trigger cut is a really good band that plays their professed genre of ‘noise rock’ really well. And I’m guessing they’re a lot of fun to see live. They’ve got their shit together, they know their base well, the guitar is aptly abrasive and catchy in all the right ways, and the rhythm section of Daniel W. And Matt Dumil is unstoppably professional. And god bless ’em for finding my stupid little blog in nowhere New York all the way from Stuttgart, Germany.

But they’ve got a fatal problem, which is that everything they’re doing has been done before. By many different people in many different bands for about 30 years now. Like I said they know their genre (which they proudly call ‘noise rock’ but could easily also be called post-hardcore, hard edged math, or some other variant), but they clearly know and worship it too well to put their own stamp on it.

Stuttgart, Germany’s noise rock enthusiasts Trigger Cut

That’s not to say they don’t have specific favorite bands they imitate. Specifically, they are undoubtedly huge Steve Albini acolytes. Vocalist and ‘treble guitarist’ ‘Ralph Ralph’ may not have a voice quite as deep and menacing as Albini, but at times it sounds as though he’s directly imitating every vocal idiosyncracy made famous by Albini (at times there’s also some David Yow). I’d say if they had more of an eclectic style that melded more noise rock groups as opposed to worshipping just a few they might stand out a little more from the pack than they do…

I couldn’t find a lyric sheet on the site, but all the words are in English (why do European bands always sing in English? Seriously?). And it certainly does sound like he’s spewing a lot of Albini-esque sarcastic criticism of everything (I think I can make out something about making fun of Munich hipsters which sounds cool). But the first song starts off with the words “you are so beautiful” and I wondered if this was gonna be a cover of Fugazi’s Margin Walker (which would be have been a really interesting take). But with titles like ‘Solid State’, ‘Transmitter’, and ‘Nutcracker’, I gotta wonder if they like Albini WAYYYYYY too much… He literally quotes lines, sometimes in the voice of the great Albini, like ‘in a minute’ in a Steve Albini voice on Oxcart, or repeating ‘Transmitter’ softly 3 times, than screaming it 3 times more. Wtf is a ‘coffin digger’ anyway? The words sound like they have a good command of English, but without actual lyrics I really can’t tell. It’s possible they cut and pasted a bunch of June of 44 and Shellac lyrics together without regard for meaning other than sounding like good typical noise rock one liners…

Ultra Hip back cover

Don’t get me wrong, this has nothing to do with the fact that they’re from Germany imitating what I’d say is a specifically midwestern American genre and I don’t understand what they’re saying. I’ve heard a number of groups that sound like this from England, from Japan, and now I’ve heard this band from Germany that flew all the way to Chicago to be recorded… and they could be the new say, Mcluskey, STTTNNNNGGG! (or however that’s spelled I can’t even find them on Google anymore), some other British band that sounded like Mcluskey I also can’t remember the name of (but enjoyed in a day so long ago that if I ever found it itd be on a ripped cdr from stolen soulseek files), or any other band that never found their own voice that won’t be remembered unless they somehow market themselves hard enough that people that’ve never heard Shellac or the Jesus Lizard hear them and think they’re brilliant and original.

But the truth is, for now anyway, they don’t bring anything new to the table. Especially to people like myself that have been listening to noise rock genre bands for thirty years now and have heard hundreds of bands like them from everywhere. Which is not to say there isn’t plenty of room for originality within the genre or that there aren’t innovative bands around the globe; Ottawa’s Metz is relentlessly driving and at times too abrasive to listen to but similar enough in song style that you get used to the abrasiveness. Atlanta Georgia’s Whores. (combining noise rock with a rich vein of sludge) is beyond intense and has endless rage for every minute they have to be awake. London’s Hey Colossus is incredibly diverse and unpredictable. There are plenty more examples of noise rock groups that are doing innovative new things with the genre. Trigger Cut really just needs to get in touch with what they can do with the by now well trodden 30 year old genre that no one else can, or they’re doomed to remain in the pack of good, hardworking, adherents of the genre that are such huge fans that they’re practically a cover band.

Thanks for the album guys. You’re a great band and I hope you find your voice someday, but on this album it sounds like you’re using someone else’s.