In this series, AudioPhix’s resident heavy music junkie, Schuler Benson, will discuss (at exhausting length) some of the lesser-known gems from his favorite bands’ back catalogs.
While New Orleans was busy birthing something sinister in Creole country, something else was going on across the nation in sunny California. They had beaches. They had Hollywood. They had empty swimming pools where kids skateboarded, like, all year long. It seemed like another planet to us. Despair, it would appear, knows no local address. Enter -(16)-.
-(16)- are, without a doubt, the most underrated, seminally important band in the history of sludge, and one of the most overlooked quality bands in heavy music, period. From their raw beginnings, dabbling in similar territory as Helmet and early Clutch, -(16)- delivered incredible tunes, and they did it off the beaten path. The band traced a musical evolution through lineup changes, dissolutions and addiction. They weathered the nu-metal storm and maintained credibility as a heavy underground act in an era when having a record deal meant getting a DJ or putting on makeup. They kept a DIY work ethic, delivered intense live shows, and displayed willingness to cling to a songwriting formula that provided them and their listeners with tunes that didn’t need any augmentation; this was truly timeless work, produced without the support of a steady record label or any real promotion from radio or television. -(16)-’s back catalog remains as vital today as it ever was, and the music the band continues to produce reiterates a tried-and-true trope in the heavy music underground: don’t fix what ain’t broke. The band’s most recent label deal with underground stalwart Relapse Records has yielded two of -(16)-’s most intense releases, and the band recently reconvened to begin working on their next release. When contacted during the writing of this article, longtime guitarist/songwriter Bobby Ferry confirmed that the band is once again working with engineer Jeff Forrest. Ferry also says the new material has taken a darker turn, and sees the band pushing for new developments including longer songs with more complex structures. While the album’s title is still under wraps, potential songs include “George,” “Peaches, Cream and Placenta,” “Pastor In A Coma” and “Secrets of the Curmudgeon.”
While getting stoked at the awesomeness of new -(16)- material, let’s take a look back at a few of the tracks that have really cemented this band’s legacy as legends. Criminally Slept-On is taking a different route this time around. I’m not focused on gems hiding in rarity releases or that haven’t seen love in a live setting in a few tours. This time, I’m taking a look at the songs that have meant the most to me over the years, some of which are beloved fan favorites and some of which are a bit less prominent in the band’s catalog. -(16)- is one of the best groups you may have never heard. And that, in itself, is criminal.
- “Red Tool Box” – A track from the band’s first release, the Doorprize 7-in. “Red Tool Box,” as early as it comes in the band’s history, gives a great preview for some of the elements that’d eventually define their sound. There’s a punk immediacy to the riffs and drums, and while it’s eased up in later songs and been replaced with a muckier world-weariness, the distorted ranting style of vocalist Cris Jerue makes its debut here in full glory. “Red Tool Box” was featured later on the Scott Case (Out Of Print) compilation, which was again released as The First Trimester. I’d never heard this one until well after the first time I heard -(16)-’s debut LP, Curves That Kick. If included, I think it could’ve been an excellent addition to the album.
- “Curves That Kick” – The title track of -(16)-’s debut full-length is actually the first of their songs I ever heard. The chords are compelling, the structure is unique, and the mix was different than a lot of other music I’d heard in a similar vein. While the band’s earlier riffing pulsated with punk sensibility, it wasn’t immediately catchy; there’s something about the entire album that works on a listener over time, and with implements as straightforward as a lot of what’s found on Curves That Kick, that’s truly a unique combination.
- “Trigger Happy” – The first track from the band’s second full-length, Drop Out, has what I think is the most explosive opening in -(16)-’s catalog. Low-rolling, angular bass punctuated by brief cymbal crashes and distorted guitar crunch creates a perfect “calm before the storm” until the track erupts into full-bore heaviness. “Trigger Happy” is a mixture of everything that’s grimy about sludge with what was entertaining about the simplicity of nu-metal and ‘90’s punk. And the whole record has such a live feel, which only adds to each song’s intensity. Another notable asset in Drop Out’s opener is Jerue’s quick, jabbed delivery. While a lot of the material he mines dabbles in depression, addiction, and self-loathing nihilism, everything about his performance in “Trigger Happy” (and most of the rest of Drop Out, for that matter) drips with fury and disgust. I can’t of a more apt way to kick off this album.
- “A Real Piece of Work” – This song is the epic half-way marker on the band’s third full-length, Blaze of Incompetence. The band’s killing it as a fully-unified machine throughout the entirety of this record, and I can scarcely think of a better song to prove it than this one. The ambling, stop-start pace of the beginning finds its way to some screeching Eyehategod-style feedback before bursting into a mid-paced breakdown riff that rounds out the rest of the song as Jerue screams the salvo that sums up most of this era’s lyrical content: “Who cares? I hate the cops / I hate the courts.” I saw a -(16)- show from earlier this year that somebody uploaded on YouTube, and it’s sweet to see “A Real Piece of Work” in the live set. This one, without a doubt, has to deliver at a show every single time it’s played.
- “Born To Lose” – Some of my favorite -(16)- material comes from Zoloft Smile. “Born To Lose” is one of those songs that has such a weird duality to it, in that while the lyrical content is pretty dark and menacing, the music is surprisingly upbeat. These are some of the most infectious riffs -(16)-’s got. There’s no way this song can’t be fun to play/see live.
- “Workplace On Fire” – Similar situation as “Born To Lose.” This is another Zoloft Smile song that’s got a solid mix of the groove and heaviness that made the record so enjoyable. And like “Born To Lose,” as well as most other songs on the record, the combination of music and vocals is truly unique, and it’s unique in a way that’s as entertaining as it is artistically fulfilling. These sauntering riffs feel at once out-of-place and totally just right behind Jerue gleefully spouting lyrics about killing co-workers and burning down his workplace. The dude sounds like he’s got a smile on his face.
- “Throw In The Towel” – There was a long hiatus between Zoloft Smile and what’s now hailed as -(16)-’s comeback record, the Relapse-backed Bridges To Burn. “Throw In The Towel” is the perfect song to open the album. I don’t know how skeptical the dudes in the band were about putting together new material, but if there was any hesitation, you certainly can’t hear it here. Ferry’s swagger is at its all-time highest on “Throw In The Towel,” and the combination of the catchiness of his riffs with the band’s thicker low-end mix re-established -(16)- as everything fans missed about them, re-tooled and ready to deliver something new and urgent.
- “Her Little ‘Accident’” – Deep Cuts From Dark Clouds ended up being one of my top releases for 2012. This is a -(16)- release that I think really stands on its own, apart from the bulk of their previous output. Jerue’s singing is harsher, lower. Ferry’s not afraid to let some of the riffs that form these songs’ backbones meander a bit and find their way to some less-direct structures than a lot of what we heard on Bridges To Burn. Another thing that made the record so engaging was the fact absolutely nothing about these dudes has mellowed. “Her Little ‘Accident’” has some of the most harrowing and articulate content Jerue’s ever delivered, and the music fits it like a glove. I’d be interested to know what came first on a track like this–the music or the words? Hell of a video for it, too.
- “Beyond Fixable” – Bar-none, my favorite song from Deep Cuts. “Beyond Fixable” has just as much touchstone heaviness as we’d expect from -(16)-, but there’s a chord-y, melodic quality to the song’s choruses that adds an emotional vulnerability while actually making the song catchier and the lyrical scenario more tragic. While it’s awesome to see a band not watering anything down this far into their career, it’s also awesome to see the music veering off into new directions… especially when those directions are so rewarding on repeat listens. Man. Such an awesome, melancholy song.
- “Drink Faster” – This is one of three recovered tracks from around the Zoloft Smile era, put out after Deep Cuts as a vinyl-only release called Lost Tracts of Time. The best part about “Drink Faster,” or any of these three tracks, really, is that they don’t feel like throwaways at all. Typically tracks that don’t make it onto a release have some kind of drawback, some reason they were left to languish unheard. Not one of these songs feels that way though; in fact, the immediacy of “Drink Faster” makes it seem like it’d be ideal in a live setting.
There you go, man. -(16)- are truly legendary; the way these guys combine feedback, groove and angst is unique and exciting in a niche that’s built on feedback, groove and angst. Instead of fading into the background, -(16)- manage to tweak the combination into something that’s not only genuine, but monolithic enough to cast a shadow over the rest of the genre. The only thing better than relishing in their old stuff is knowing that new stuff is coming. Light up, get high. Who cares?
Check out -(16)-‘s Relapse Records band page to pick up records and keep up with new info.