I’ve been listening to Pyrrhon’s What Passes for Survival for a few months now. And I’m still wrapping my head around it as I read some denouncing it as some “hipster” bullshit, or praising it as absolutely fucking brilliant. And when you’re already way late turning in a review, it’s hard to not let these things seep in a little bit as your finalizing your thoughts on this mammoth ball of chaos.
Pyrrhon have been churning out weirdness for years now. Conceived in 2008, the band has released two previous full-lengths, as well as a few demos and EPs. They’re frantic, unusual, plenty technical and heavy. What Passes for Survival is a new chapter in the band’s madness. Vocalist Doug Moore says:
“The writing process for the new album felt much more visceral, by comparison. It’s more physically wrenching to perform than anything we’ve done before, but we didn’t have to think and struggle our way through the vocabulary of sounds we use the way we’ve had to in the past.”
And it shows. What Passes for Survival is Pyrrhon’s most intense and emotionally ravaging work to date. Instrumentally and lyrically, this pulls no punches and wastes nothing. Every string bend, weird time signature and spewed word is meant to throw you and watch you snap like a twig. The first few notes and beats of “The Happy Victim’s Creed” gives way to an ever shifting wave of madness, right before a single, significant proclamation: “I did what I did. You don’t like it, you can kiss my ass.” Keep that in mind whether you like this or not.
I’ve never made it a secret that my big bitch about tech-death is how quickly an album can go from incredible to atonal. Pyrrhon haven’t had that problem, but blame that on the experimentation. What Passes for Survival quickly revs up on its opening track into a dizzying spectacle. Dylan DiLella’s guitar work is incredible. Shifting from heavy, to bluesy, to melodic, or driving at the drop of a hat. His riffs are memorable, at times catchy, and constantly bursting with life. The solo section in “The Invisible Hand Holds a Whip” is one of the most striking points on the album. However, the epic “Tennessee” also holds up as one of the most somber, vicious and varied songs the album. DiLella pushes the song from Southern blues licks, to heavy, charging attacks, to noisy, odd finger work.
But it’s not just DiLella carrying the band. Bassist Erik Malave and new drummer Steve Schwegler pull plenty of the weight. It’s always a joy to see a bassist not get drowned out in the mix, and Malave has plenty of stand out sections. His work in “The Unraveling: Hegemony of Grasping Fears” holds the track together, especially as the guitar sounds like it’s going on a Sonic Youth solo. Meanwhile, Schwegler’s drumming is a perfect fit for the band. His precision acrobatics are a treat to the ears track after track.
Doug Moore’s vocals are lyrics are what make this album bleed in the best way possible. The first track reads like a sonnet. I counted the beats, and maybe I’m off, but it’s not in any meter that I know of or could find. Regardless, its dark acceptance in the name of survival is interesting. Or at least, what passes for it. Other tracks like “Goat Ritual Mockery” show a sense of humor, alluding to D&D, Thelema code and taking jabs at dress code. It’s amusing if you get it. Still, others offer no quarter but misery in “Empty Tenement Spirit.” And as much as Moore can weave a mood, so can the rest of the band.
What Passes for Survival isn’t for everyone. The elitist tech-death community might snub it because, personally, coming from the hardcore/punk scene, I know a thing or two about genre “purity” and how these fuckers push on it. But Pyrrhon don’t care and never will. What Passes for Survival is a masterstroke. Something you can sink your teeth into over and over again and never, ever bore of. Maybe some people will find it too inaccessible. Maybe it will bring more into the genre’s fold. But consider this: if you’re only going to give this one or two listens, then you haven’t really heard it.