EXHALANTS – Atonement (2020)REVIEW

No reconciliation between ‘Gods’ and men — Billy clubs indiscriminately swung upon stumbling seniors, landing upon their bloodied skulls. Syphilitic tyranny standing with a bible in hand, beholding a global pox that came with a free upgrade to overnight shipping. None of us can breathe anymore under martial law so, we’ve taken to enforcing thought crimes within imagined social constructs. There is no spiritual denial or mental loophole left to escape the white-hot faux god-fearin’ n’ gleefully stranglin’ hands upon our necks; All our veins are bulging with tired, thinly veiled disappointment at a society unfit to care for its numbers. “Well, I don’t fuckin’ know.” It sure ain’t the human condition but, it is clarification of confinement and mass derision. There just isn’t any fighting it when you’re on life support and the machine keeps catching fire. Exhalants aren’t a slice of life but, rather a rally against its current pace of extinction on their second album ‘Atonement‘. The gloriously sewn and seamless noise rockin’ post-hardcore bump the Austin, Texas-based trio brings is but a place to grip and hang on ’til you’re ready to take the brunt of this inevitable fall.

Holy crap, man, that album artwork just isn’t going to prepare you for how fuckin’ shit hot Exhalants are on account of how ugly it is. I don’t mean to lead off with a dick move but the -only- negative thing I have to say about ‘Atonement’ is that the cover art isn’t a great start. Yet it does manage to be a memorable enough image that my mind is willing to compartmentalize its trauma, for now. Beyond that point we’ve essentially gotten two albums out of these three folks that represent all of the absolute best, most tastefully aggressive traits of noise rock, post-hardcore and dreamy space-cased outlier acts dotted across the last thirty years of United States freak rock infamy. This’ll be a bit of déjà vu for folks who remember all of the praise I’d aimed at the band’s debut (‘Exhalants‘, 2018) but the key points of reference, influence and inspiration aren’t dramatically different this second time around. Exhalants still represent deeper extremes applied to the dynamics of classic noise rock outliers like Cherubs and post-hardcore acts such as Unwound for their use of ultra-heavy (nigh sludgy) clangorous attacks juxtaposed with sleepy, dreamy and existential dread-filled breaks that meander and charm as they cultivate their mastery of the loud-quiet-loud event.

The spontaneous, flippant hulking “we did this in 8 hours” wile of their debut, ‘Exhalants’, would’ve ceased to impress in iteration, though, so the band’ve clearly spent some serious time road-testing and properly crafting this second album. The stunning and constantly sparkling details really begin to ‘pop’ like delicious marrow from the bones of this record as it becomes a more familiar ~40 minute spin. Certain pieces will definitely resemble the aesthetic notion of Unsane and their grind-heavy, bluesy swing but you’re not getting it straight, they’ll throw in a mathy bridge (“Bang”) or meandering minor key darkness to stagger any direct comparisons to auld or too-close heroics. When they aren’t hammering out their own brand of groove stricken (early) Helmet and/or Quicksand-sized jig n’ wobble pieces (“End Scenes”) frequent exploration of odd time signatures and fast-shifting, textural guitar rants make for a plethora of heavily repeatable moments that appreciate in terms of technique and sound design but don’t necessarily shift in emotional impact or meaning. The one piece that did run the gamut a bit was definitely the ‘Spiderland’-esque ten minute swing of “Lake Song”, an exercise in both extended composition (~10 minutes) and pushing that Unwound influenced post-hardcore construct to its limit. The balance of spaced-out and emotive bursts with harder-edged aggro rock rumble is certainly a small and difficult niche to achieve but again, this all seems to come naturally to Exhalants who sound like well-oiled machine after two years of touring and with some great care taken in construction of this impressive, boss-polished largely do-it-yourself production.

It hits so hard, and right off the bat: If every noise rock band had a Bill with a bass and a tone like that of ‘Atonement’, I’d probably spend far more time lost in it. Rounded but not to glossy, percussive and very gently distorted, the rubber-meets-gravel crush of the bass guitar performances here are pure and thrilling intoxicants in my mind. The compositions themselves are less fiddly and impromptu this time around, allowing the basslines to slink about and really emphasize just how heavy Exhalants are and this should feel less ‘noise punk’ and more top notch US noise rock act in motion. Unassuming as the record appears, it is yet the most striking example of the high standards of the 90’s noise rock zeitgeist given a complete refresh we’ve gotten this year. Yet we are working with extremes here, heavier screamin’ brass and far more floaty flings off into post-hardcore dreamscapes and no doubt it’ll be too bluntly aggro off the bat for folks looking for a gentler hit.

But is ‘Atonement’ reading as something special primarily for its booming fidelity and sizzling tones? No, and I think the songwriting itself speaks to smart stylistic choices and a knack for achieving ‘feeling’ with an economy of notes applied. “Passing Perceptions” is half a grinding early 2000’s At The Drive-In swinger that gives way to the “This band should be opening for Deftones or… Metz?” dream-state of “Definitions” the whole of the two pieces in succession might (again) feel like a less rigid take on moderne post-hardcore but Exhalants haven’t pulled any punches when it comes to heaviness, multiflorous guitar techniques and the core emotional sway of each song. Fast forward to Side B with “Richard” and we’ve traded proto post-rock jangling for a snarling ‘Goat’ or ‘Born Annoying’ meanness that only gets ten tons darker on the psychotic rip of “Crucifix”. The float and the fall are served at an irregular heartbeat but the whole of the album serves equal quantities of violence and restoration, the result is an album that never feels taxing despite its wealth of cathartic battling with existential frustration. I don’t know if it is thickening my skin or rejuvenating my pores but whatever Exhalants are doing beneath the surface has been a bright (heavily revisited) spot near the end of a very dark summer. A very high recommendation.

Very high recommendation.

Rating: 9 out of 10.
LABEL(S):Hex Records
RELEASE DATE:September 11th, 2020
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Noise Rock,

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