Grown stunted, twisted by the radioactive psychosis of the Los Angeles wastelands, and full up on the well-worn mask of drugs, punk, and doom -(16)- were almost certainly the musky scent downwind of late 80’s innovations in manic filth. All the crazed n’ heavy chunking freakery coming out of SST Records, Amphetamine Reptile, and Earache just as the 90’s hit was where the original line-up found their bullish take on groove-socked stoner post-hardcore/doom or, a wiry-yet-devastated sludge metal of their own ilk. Noise rock in spirit, doom/punk in practice, and groove metal (by association only!) there was no way to miss out on what -(16)- were pushing throughout the 90’s if you were like me, a metal-punk magazine hound in the west coast United States prone to hunt down uniquely fucked up music by sight and recommendation alone. Sludge was the right stuff at the right time, the right sort of specific sub-genre fusion necessary of the era that’d most often feature a distraught spirit of actualization by way of confrontation of the ‘self’, metal bands were finally talking about their feelings and it was ugly as Hell. Sludge changed as its slow ramp to popularity oozed up yet -(16)- couldn’t be accused of being anything less than true to themselves for their classic ’93-’03 four album run. Reformed, reinvigorated, re-defeated and still getting the cold shoulder from a different sort of hipster today — The fourth time is yet again a charm on -(16)-‘s eighth full-length, ‘Dream Squasher’, wherein they manage to move on and strike harder at their craft rather than cash-out nostalgia like so many bored old men.
It must’ve been a Theologian/Pessimiser ad (or Relapse distro spread?) in MRnR, Flipside, or more likely a metal fanzine back in ’97-’98 where I’d first seen the cover of ‘Blaze of Incompetence‘ (1997) and for sure it wasn’t even the first ad I’d seen for a -(16)- album as their second album (‘Drop Out‘, 1996) was heralded as their ‘breakthrough’ moment depending which magazine you’d picked up but no doubt the third time around was a big fuckin’ deal. Deciding to buy ‘Blaze of Incompetence’ alongside Unsane‘s incredible ‘Occupational Hazard’ on CD that year brought on an important shift in reconsidering my reaction to everything from Quicksand to Crowbar at the time and I felt like that third -(16)- album would forever be my “Hey, if you like that you should try…” go-to for sludge folks who’d never dipped outside the NOLA cult. A year later amongst the first few batches of promotional CDs I’d received, for my first (teenaged) professional n’ published reviewing gig, a compilation of early material (‘Scott Case (Out of Print Material)‘, 1998) from ’91-’93 made the argument that the ‘Strap it On’-era Helmet influenced and barbarous club of their earlier years might’ve actually been more my style all along, having strongly taken that era’s blurring of lines between sludge aesthetics and the more punk-obsessed side of noise rock. For nostalgic purposes I will always think of -(16)- as the band doing that gas-huffing, brutally heavy cover of Bad Brains‘ “Right Brigade” and hell, they’d made a devout fool of me then and there.
‘Blaze of Obscurity’ is an important reference for the -(16)- of today if only because its dual vocal approach would feature guitarist and key songwriter Bobby Ferry pulling in bigger hooks, harder swings just as ‘Dream Squasher’ is today. It was also undoubtedly their first “going for it” album or, at least the one that was their own gig with a notable style and professional render (via Alex Newport of Fudge Tunnel). I’m not gonna dig through the whole discography here but I will say that the five year wait for ‘Zoloft Smile‘ (2002) was worth it and I still love that record but hell, nobody gave a shit back then despite it being their heaviest, most memorable record… ’til death in 2004. Big grooves, less paint thinner chugging vocal effects, and some of their deeper doom metal swings up until that point fell upon deaf ears and they wouldn’t reform until 2007. Why did I still care just as much after ten years of listening to these guys? -(16)- aren’t performative shits, there isn’t any pretense winking at you across the room and the guy doing the shouting has a bit of conflicted n’ stressed mid-to-late 80’s Rollins and the soured, defeated stoney soul of Wino in there too. Why do I still care yet another decade later? -(16)- have only amplified those traits in earnest, bringing bigger doom and more mirror-shattering honesty to their tumbling sweet-spot ramming groove-and-shout style. Back in 2016 ‘Lifespan of a Moth‘ had it down, had new life to cough up, yet it was time to push things harder; That is where I see ‘Dream Squasher’ today, a step up in every sense and a breakthrough towards new, more devastating norms just as ‘Zoloft Smile’ had been back in 2002.
And hell, they kinda push it. If you’re looking for a catchy classic sludge rock record with a morbid sense of humor and tons of big hooks, they’ve straight up nailed it here despite getting weird at every turn. A cursory listen to ‘Dream Squasher’ might initially reveal a bitter but perky-assed and accessible take on the brutally-tested life of folk prone to addiction, personal implosion, and the cycle of continually rebuilt ‘self’ from shatter. It is the right instinct, and the cleanest tone of Ferry‘s voice is stoner/doom heaven at times (“Sadlands”) but this is a nastier self-scolding than the already pretty brutal ‘Lifespan of a Moth’ was four years back. The damning thought that kin will inevitably take after their fuck-up parents (“Candy in Spanish”), loving a pet enough to commit suicide when it dies (“Me and the Dog Die Together”), some entirely timely nihilistic thoughts on solitude and intentional social isolation (“Agora, Killed by a Mountain Lion”), and uh the brutally bare and emotional “Kissing the Choir Boy” add up to the most savagely real and affecting -(16)- experience to date. It bears some mention that these are all corpse flowers, songs that are alluring and catchy with their huge grooves and impassioned vocal performances calling the ear to pay closer attention until the lyrics at the end are most often an intoxicating bout of sorrowful, ironic, or plain devastation revelation. The worst part? A great deal of it is relatable and all the more punishing for ‘Dream Squasher’ being so infectiously listenable, a gigantic dark-rocking brute of a record that chunks and thunders its doomed-assed from start to finish with only a few supernal releases along the way.
Vocalist Cris Jerue‘s distinct roar is still there but Ferry pushing up front does freshen the dynamic considerably after all of these years and this is felt most in the deepest plunges into melodicism, which also translate into effective guitar riffs and flourishes to drive the moment rather than accompany it. “Candy in Spanish” begins as quintessential -(16)- chunkery, big riffs in keen time and pristine-yet-violent bass guitar tone that I personally love; Then around 2:35 minutes into the song a fairly simple riff cracks right into what made this band special ~three decades ago all the way through today, knowing when to toss in enough charm that you’ll put on the whole record just to hear one chorus, one riff, one big moment that ‘makes’ the album and builds into ten more moments just as valuable when reaching peak familiarity with their craft. All of Side A is golden in this sense, some righteous stroke of inspiration has hit Ferry and crew with inspiration even beyond their revived spirits on the previous 2-3 LPs. I cannot understate the wallop that the Hammond-esque organs and woozy psychedelic doom stomp of “Sadlands” spanks this album a mile beyond expectations and this coming from a pretty well-sauced fan of their gig since five albums ago. It is such a moment that I’m left wanting more of it for the rest of the side, and this’d make the otherwise acceptably caustic and ominous “Acid Tongue” feel like it ain’t exactly middle of the album strong. Side B has that next big moment straight away with “Agora (Eaten by a Mountain Lion)” think of it as High on Fire-sized -(16)-, all of their abrasive 90’s spirit amplified to skyscraper sized monstrosity and this is the perfect juxtaposition for the hardcore punk-sludge’d whip of “Ride the Waves” that follows, whirling up another gigantic groove in the midst of their Corrosion of Conformity-spun storm. The only point where even I was squirming a bit came with the 1-2 punch of “Summer of ’96” and “Kissing the Choir Boy”, massive songs but man am I going to need a lyric sheet to figure out exactly how beaten up I should feel.
-(16)- have shaken the plaster from the cathedral walls with this one, like a strong bout of diarrhea from an anxious gut they rip and reek their pungency with a fresh urgency built back up to within the span of the last decade or so. They’re old pros, wise enough to stay warped and warped enough to do whatever it takes to kick on down the road at a more hungered clip. I found myself gawking at ‘Dream Squasher’ for days, not only entranced by the incredibly fine artwork but this refined yet still wholly punk-slapped and roaring spiritus from auld and under-appreciated sludge greats. I could ramble on track-by-track or dig up the strife and tragedy that’d inspired this beast of an album but that’ll be extra value you’ll dig up while pawing away at ‘Dream Squasher’. A very high recommendation to both classic sludge heads, noise rockers, and stoner-doomed heads who like it aggro.
Very high recommendation. 4.5/5.0
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