Occasionally, once in a blue moon when the planets align and the stars shine at their brightest you get to hear something that utterly grips you and captivates you. This debut EP from Oxford’s Undersmile on first listen grabbed the back of my boxers and pulled them into a tight wedgie, refusing to let go.
I’ve heard various comparisons from Electric Wizard to The Melvins to L7 to the Swans, some of which have more merit that others but in fairness Undersmile have taken the doom/sludge template and added their own twist.
Opening track, the awesomely titled “Instrumenstrual” is a disarming taster of what’s to come…crawling rhythms and elephantine drums back up a repeated, arpeggiated guitar figure that blends seamlessly in “Cutter’s Choice”. It is here that the big guns in the Undersmile arsenal are wheeled out. Guitarists Hel Sterne and Taz Corona-Brown also handle the dual female vocals and this is where Undersmile really set themselves apart. Musically this is big on riffs and grinds with a Melvins meets St Vitus intensity but the vocals add an extra dimension that may divide opinion amongst the listeners. Adopting a twin high and low approach, the voices spit the lyrics out with a sardonic sneer that recalls Courtney Love when she still had fire in her belly and smack in her veins and Babes In Toyland’s Kat Bjelland. Melodic and visceral the voices manage to transcend the traditionally accepted norms of doom and sludge to lift this to a higher level. That’s not to say the vocals are the only selling point here. Tom McKibbin’s drums display enough weight and power to come close to Dale Crover’s more animalistic moments and the dual guitar riffs are as deep, dark and oppressive as they are powerful.
On “Teutonic Dyslexia” things really start to get uncomfortable…in a beautiful way. Undersmile take the tempo down a gear, paint the walls a darker shade of black and unleash the full weight of their pain. Again the vocals take things to the edge, delivered in a monotone drawl that alternates with brief spoken snatches…this is a horror soundtrack of titanic proportions as they sing of “pleasure and pain”. Despite its 10 minute plus length and monolithic slowness this remains as mesmerising as it is daunting yet never loses sight of the underlying sense of melody that weaves through the Undersmile sound. Backed up by a reverb heavy and expansive sound, this puts so many so called doom bands to shame as a centrepiece on this EP.
With no pause for reflection the band launch into “Crab People”. It’s disjointed, discordant riff sounding like something from Voivod’s “Killing Technology” album played on some serious downers topped off again by the haunting, dead-eyed dual vocals. Midway through this epic 8 minute plus crawl the caffeine kicks in and Undersmile throw us a neat curve ball and pick up the pace before hitting us with a truly demented guitar break that disorients the unsuspecting listener before dragging us down into the murky depths of despair once again.
The grinding bass and feedback that heralds the start of final track “Spore” lets us know that things aren’t going to get any jollier in Undersmile Land!!!! When the guitars kick in it is simply to pound relentlessly…like having your face smashed into a car bonnet by Charles Bronson (the incarcerated nut job, not the monkey faced actor!!!). For all its grinding, doom laden intensity there is an underlying subtlety that isn’t immediately apparent as noises and melodies drift in and out of the background mix while Hel gives full vent to her inner Hendrix and is allowed to wail on her guitar in psychotic style.
For a band barely 2 years into their existence Undersmile have their sound so fully formed and realised on this, their first release, that it’s hard not to think that they must have been around a lot longer and have a lot more experience than they do. This is just the start and having heard a couple of rough tracks from their forthcoming album, I can safely say that things are only going to get far darker, far weirder and far more unsettling, but for now I can’t urge you enough to check this out…you may just find your new favourite band.
Scribed by: Ollie Stygall