Starkweather – This Sheltering Night
On June 25th, 1959, Charles Starkweather was executed in Lincoln, Nebraska. At the age of 20, the young Starkweather had already murdered eleven people on a two-month spree with his girlfriend as they traveled across the United States of America. Without glamourizing the events surrounding the killing spree, it is safe to conclude that a troubled young man was cut short after a hyperactive burst of unthinkable violence. Such a statement can also be made about Starkweather, the band. A seminal band was cut short after a short burst of unimaginable aggression. Crossbearer and the Into the Wire EP are hugely influential pieces of metallic hardcore that, in large part due to their polarizing forward-thinking, did not register in the minds of many while simultaneously being cherished by the few in the know. It is difficult and commendable to find a group that retains a cult-like following and such a degree of regard as Starkweather, a band who after twenty-one years of activity (this term should be taken with a grain of salt) have only two preexisting full-lengths and only occasionally play shows. It is as though the band is always lurking just beyond the shadows waiting for its opportunity to pounce, and if This Sheltering Night is any indication, Starkweather have aged like the finest wine: In absolute darkness these creatures ferment, bubbling over in richness and texture until they can no longer be contained.
2006’s Croatoan was a shock for fans; no sooner had listeners given up hope for a new release from Rennie Resmini, Todd Forkin, Harry Rosa, and Vincent Rosa, than a Candlelight Records release was announced and unleashed. The album was dense, complex, and brimming with difficult time signatures, downtuned axes, and the inimitable shriek and howl of Resmini. Tracks flirted with acoustic guitar and more melodic harmonization on top of devastating (and well-written) riffs, guitar and bass interlocking to pound its listener into submission. My first experience with the Philly band was with this album, and it was nearly impenetrable upon first listen. I knew I loved it, but like a complex novel I knew I would need to work on this love, returning to it in steps and sequences until it all made sense. Enter 2010 and the release of This Sheltering Night. Four years later and backed by Deathwish, the title stands true of the band. Waiting in the darkness, the members of Starkweather have truly created a masterful work, a haunting and predatory creature that tears its listeners to pieces.
This Sheltering Night is an album. It is not meant to be thrown onto shuffle alongside poppy mainstream fluff that profits from singles; it is a novelistic labyrinth that begins at the edge of Side A and ends when the needle clicks off of Side B. Starkweather entrap the listener and drag them inward, claw and all. Opener “Epiphany” is absolutely intense. It shifts and grinds as well as anything off of Croatoan, alchemically soldering discordant guitars with crafty harmonics. However, some important differences are noticeable. Resmini’s vocals give new meaning to the term “unhinged.” His lows are more diverse than they have ever been, and his cleans soar. His voice not only travels alongside the instruments, but he commands and guides them. Guitar solos and creepy atmospherics recount Jane Doe era Converge, while its heaviest moments call Integrity to mind.
Starkweather have never had a specific point of identification. At their most intense they sound like no other, and at their most experimental they again sound like no other. Their songs are living and breathing, inhabiting a presence of their own without the burden of typical song structure. A song such as “All Creatures Damned and Divine (Inducing Motion Sickness)” follows its title rather explicitly. It begins slowly from a noise passage, leading into a quasi-melodic black metal riff. It is nearly symphonic. Guitars spiral out of control while a singular riff holds everything in place. One gets the feeling of holding on tightly for their life. The track then shifts into a slower passage reminiscent of flowing down rapids… The calm before the storm. Constant slowdown, spiraling. Resmini’s voice is everywhere at once. Losing grip, losing momentum. This song is interesting in that it returns to its slowed motif often, but there are elements of it that continue to unhinge. Looking at this as a battle between creatures, the song is a fitting demonstration of the conflicting forces it details. This song, and subsequently the entire album, is positively musical. At about the 4:00 mark, a trademark Starkweather riff appears: Sludgy, detuned chugs into a soaring, melodic guitar line, it is the peer at the light before getting dragged back into the depths of hell. This is a place where leeches are tamed by fire, where the many machines of industrialization go to churn after they die. This is a mechanical place, a living, breathing furnace that incinerates souls. All the while, however, one is able to find beauty in the flame.
“Broken From Inside” is like a priest commencing a choir. Discordant and dark, Resmini’s soaring, slightly hoarse cleans not only accentuate the choir, but guide them through unknown pastures. Sudden shifts in tempo and mood make this a stuttering effort, but it works perfectly: Like a murderer waiting just amongst the shadows, the unrefined edges of Starkweather’s whole reflect the decaying bayonet purging the insides of the hapless victim. This track illustrates why Sheltering Night surpasses and soars above the aforementioned Croatoan: It has dynamics that were played with on Croatoan, but ultimately proved unwilling to break free from a mid-tempo roll. While this effort still manages to steamroll its listeners, the rhythm-driven interlude two-thirds into the song and its sudden change into discordance show how the band has slowly written a manifesto, a book of sorts. A quicker stab at 6 minutes, “Bustuari” breaks through the gates with off-time signatures, double-bass ferociousness, and a distinctly vicious midsection. This song helps to illustrate why this record really is a guitarist’s album. Where Croatoan found guitar and bass interlocked, pummeling the listener with equal intensity, here both swarm every which way in a manner that disorients as it encroaches. The second half of the album practically glistens. It is a progression from the murky depths experienced at the beginning of the record into a higher state of consciousness, almost like the soaring watch on the cover of the record.
There is a reason this record will make it onto many top-10 lists this year and hopefully prove very successful for the band: They break new ground. This album is a benchmark in modern metallic hardcore as it delves into free-form jazz, ambient electronics, and progressive metal in a completely new and tasteful way. This is not Iwrestledabearonce trying to prove they can cram a million ideas into 40 second bursts, nor is it Between the Buried and Me stuttering through an 18-minute song with nary a connective thread. This is what will come to be known as the Starkweather effect, a motion exemplified specifically in the tracks “One Among Vermin” and “Proliferate.” The former glides through the murkiness into a beautiful melodic section that glistens into a gleaming jazz section, both introspective and meditative. It shifts effortlessly into uncontrolled noise and epic post-rock similar to This Will Destroy You before breaking into sweep-arpeggios I’m sure Todd Forkin has been itching forever to play. The latter track, and 2.5 minute interlude of sorts, breaks wholly new ground as it thumps like a pulse, looping guitar samples on top of a free-flowing and constantly changing live-drum pattern. It’s like a trip-hop track that crumbles as it pieces itself back together, mending itself as the band has mended their institution. This is the Starkweather I forever want to see, the band that is unafraid of truly experimenting, not giving a flying shit about what listeners think while simultaneously providing an amazing listen to those brave enough to experience it firsthand.
To further this notion of the “album,” Starkweather split the proceedings into segments with four tracks. The noise and ambience of “Swarm” is frightening. One is reminded of the novel House of Leaves and its ability to crawl up your skin and leave you helpless. The track is able to convey an unsettling sense of evil that destroys every faux-Satanic black-metal band that pledges allegiance to dead trends: Starkweather are their own beast, an institution, a cult of worship for those in the know, the patient souls who have waited years between releases and posthumous rumour to witness the spirit, no, energy, of an entity disguised as four individuals from the United States of America. Where “Swarm” and “Transmit” are abrasive and noisy, “Receive” is carried by a pretty mandolin and lightly reverberated guitars. In a way, this is more unsettling than the album’s darker moments.
On This Sheltering Night, Starkweather manage to match and even outdo slam metal outfits such as Defeated Sanity and Devourment with their down-tuned, palm-muted mayhem. They incorporate discordance to a level that surpasses the almighty Jesus Lizard and even Throbbing Gristle. They steamroll through hardcore passages that call to mind Integrity and Earth Crisis, but never do they once sound like any of these bands. It is a very rare thing in music to find a group that slithers its way around genre tags and identifiable pigeonholes to create something that stands alone while challenging and excelling beyond the constraints and limitations of modern music. Perhaps this is why Starkweather initially called it quits; Ingenuity is never appreciated until it ceases to be. Artists like Harvey Milk are still making do with the devoted fanbase they’ve amassed, and it is doubtful that they will ever receive the credit they deserve even in their second incarnation. The same applies to Starkweather: Jacob Bannon wasn’t kidding when he declared this band as being one of the best in recent memory. This is difficult music to digest, but this is precisely why everyone should sit down with this album. Returning to the notion of a novel, Starkweather do not compress their songs to appease the easily-swayed; there is no poppy Billboard-chart filler here. This Sheltering Night requires a patience from its listeners that the band has already perfected in its many years of existence. The careening stopwatch on the cover is not merely for show; it is a metaphor for Starkweather’s predatory patience. They are a group of likeminded individuals willing to mill in oblivion, if only to unleash the ultimate beast upon its listeners. 2010 is treating music lovers well. Here’s to hoping Starkweather finally get the recognition they deserve.