Possibly because my days of communing with the subterranean rats of New York City’s underbelly—both literally and figuratively—have been curtailed in my advanced age, this rotten-to-the-Big-Apple’s-core has escaped detection for over a decade. Similarly, maybe the brainchild of Marco del Rio (a.k.a. He Who Crushes Teeth) fell as quickly off my radar as it appeared due to the decidedly indie rock air of its moniker? Truth be told, however, Raspberry Bulbs is gutter sniping, lo-fi punk of a desperately unbalanced and astringent order. And while this, the project’s fourth full-length, is seeing the light of day via Relapse nothing has dulled the inherent paranoiac edges or lessened the uncomfortable oppression.
Initially created as a solo project of Bone Awl’s del Rio in 2008, the Raspberry Bulbs lineup has since been fleshed out to quintet status, including a former member of hardcore royalty, Rorschach. Up until now, they have existed under the deep cover of the punk rock underground: shows in houses, squats, basements, and record stores; DIY touring; hand-pressed, limited-run releases shrouded in murky graphics; ramshackle recordings captured in locations that members of Steely Dan and Foreigner wouldn’t dare inhale the air. You get what I’m getting at. And while many press outlets, as well as the band’s new label, are quick to highlight the Bone Awl connection and attach the band to black metal, Before the Age of Mirrors is actually more aligned with the sort of punk that emerges from the excitable hands of youthful energetic outcasts who, in the search for an identity and cohort, have discovered counter-culture, feedback as texture and the unholy trinity of pre-major label Sonic Youth, Gang of Four and Darkthrone (trust me, I know all about it: I'm raising one of 'em and his band practices in our basement).
Overall, an uneasy battery propels a phalanx of down-picked power chords that are delivered with cold stiffness and topped off with del Rio’s distortion glazed, monochromatic hollering. This approach creates an air of impending collapse. Where Raspberry Bulbs defy the laws of tradition is in their combination of inaccessibility with holistic and no-frills riffs offering the simple catchiness that rudimentary punk/post-punk has been cradling in its bosom since the late ‘70s. “Missing Teeth” houses a reverberating, tribal quality and the sort of guitar slashing reminiscent of the late Andy Gill (Gang of Four) and Wire’s Colin Newman and Bruce Gilbert with a smattering of Hellhammer/early Celtic Frost ushering in requisite amounts of darkness. A similar tack is taken on “Doggerel” which sees a bouncy, kick-snare pattern offering up a mod-like quality to the song’s stilted The Who-meets-Mission of Burma groove. And then there’s “Reclaimed Church” which is the song Public Image Ltd. is still trying to write in their attempt to live up to its reputation (dig that amazing guitar fill following the first stanza!).
An important question pertaining to Before the Age of Mirrors is ‘wherein lies all the purported black metal?’ There are smatterings of echo-y noise of the post-black metal sort in the four soundscape-y interludes and if you want to cast a fly-fishing length line, there are parallels between the Bulbs’ perpetual loosey-goosey-ness and how Darkthrone spend two days in the studio per album or the sloppiness of early Sodom. However, outside of the first half of the raucous album closer “Given Over to History” and the surprising layers of dual guitar and choral key introducing “Spitting From on High,” many of the elements that can be aligned with black metal are more procedural than directly musical. Brass tacks: there’s not a lot of black metal in this supposed black metal band. And as much as judging a book by its cover is a no-no, in all honesty, their name might have been a tip-off.