I don't know about you, but I don't get into a lot of spur-of-the-moment conversations about the complicated history of China, and the relational how-fors and what-abouts that led to Hong Kong being annexed off as a century-long British territory. Naturally, Kowloon Walled City, the "ungoverned and densely populated de jure Chinese enclave within the boundaries of Kowloon City, British Hong Kong" [a.k.a. big-ass squat] doesn't come up as a topic of discussion as often as Kowloon Walled City, the "noise rock/sludge/post-metal band from San Francisco" does. But like the former residents of the actual walled city before its government-mandated demolition in the mid-'90s, Kowloon Walled City, the band, live life differently and do things on their own terms.
The above-quoted description does as much justice as injustice to the unique approach the band has fostered since their formation back in 2007. One of the more intriguing elements to Kowloon Walled City is how their heaviness is manifested. Instead of the usual and proverbial 'all knobs to the right' redlining and air pushing in order to achieve maximum crunch and crush, Kowloon Walled City approach heaviness more conceptually instead of physically. Taking cues from the jazz/blues adage that it's more about what you don't play and the space between the notes, the quartet revel in creating agitated unease via precipitous spaciousness. Notes and beats are sustained to agonizing lengths; chord progressions move with stealth, the changes hanging in the air like slo-mo bullets in a particularly violent action movie scene; pained voices paint sonic pictures of the bulging veins, strained vocal chords, and choked out windpipes of their delivery man, vocalist/guitarist Scott Evans.
Additionally, the band's easing their distortion pedals knobs towards the left has always been an intriguing piece to their work. Evans and Jon Howell's guitars gravitate between a broken timing belt clang and gothic post-punk being force-fed through a Gretsch hollow body. It's as vast and cinematic as it is singularly unnerving and approximates the sort of unexpected gut punch that leaves you doubled over and gasping for air minutes after the fact because it didn't seem that bad at first. And on this, the band's fourth album, Kowloon Walled City have further stripped down their already stripped-down sound to an edgy and disarming haunt.
If one were to dissect the components of the album's title track opener, it'd be something like Neurosis' Given To The Rising minus most of the distorted thunder, plus a radio broadcast of Unsane's Chris Spencer doing wilderness calls, plus unsung post-hardcore heroes Shudder To Think being power slammed by unsung noise-rock heroes, The Antikaroshi. The song crawls with insidious intent, causing damage at a snail's pace with a smile on its face; like tree roots gnawing through underground infrastructure and poking holes in home foundations. The clean tritonic clang and blower bass offer equal portions of barbarous thud, despite hailing from different ends of what traditionally would be considered heavy.
As the album progresses, that contrast gap widens and the sparseness of the guitars are magnified ("Utopian" and "Lampblack") and cymbal crashing and hissing act in concert with a bowel-rumbling bass as the arbiters of an ethereal, yet still monolithic, hammering ("Oxygen Tent"). There's a spot which feels like OLD being slapped by the avant-garde section of J. Mascis' record collection ("Splicing"), and shit gets left hanging in the air like the plot non-sequiturs of a Leone spaghetti western ("You Had a Plan") and that's not just the result of the searing guitar twang.
In the same way, many question whether a 6.5 acre-sized glorified apartment complex with prostitution, gambling and drugs as its economic base was actually a city, many will question the metallic worth of Piecework's bald and naked approach to extremity. But, there's an anticipatory air that exists here with every downstroke, every bit of pensive sustain, every pregnant pause. But the sense is that the final riposte never comes. Here, the creation is one of a mood similar to that of the best TV show/movie/novel cliffhanger that's already had the viewer/reader on the edge of his or her seat. What happens at the end? Something or someone gets demolished. We just don't know who or what. Yet.