Looking Back At You Kiddo
You’re driving along the turnpike on a chilly April night; it’s passed three A.M. and you’ve been on the road far longer than you’d hoped. Taking the last sip of your now cold Wawa coffee, the mental freeze you’ve come to know too well begins to seep into your skull. Exits are hard to keep track of as the blurred headlights of other passing cars seem to hold your gaze for longer stretches of time. Your eyes are numb, and your head is cold from the rapid gusts of Jersey air bursting through your open window. Checking your rear-view mirror, no cars are following you; you’re alone heading home. With nothing to worry about on your side of the divider, you still can’t shake the feeling that there’s something you should be watching, something to be taken care of. It also doesn’t help that you can’t shake the shadow you see lingering in the backseat. Blinking bug-eyed from road, to mirror, to headlight, back to mirror, and sometimes the road, you take a deep breath and turn on the radio, hoping whatever music that comes on might take your mind to a better place; but, you’re not quite close enough to the city to get a clear signal. Trudging through nowhere New Jersey, only concerned with getting home, the low simmer of white noise humming from your car speakers plays out as you let go of your breath. Looking up towards the endless horizon, the moon’s warped like it has before; taking on the form of Saturn, fading into the darkness of the nighttime sky, you wonder how many times you have and will see this somber celestial sight. But, it’s okay though. You’re heading home. You’re exit will come soon enough.
This is the scene we’re given (or at least how I imagine it) on the album cover to Unkempt Herald’s third full length album “Kiddo”. Formed by three dudes out of Bloomfield, this groove metal trio has been honing a style of music that they’re proud to claim as their own. Sprinkling flavors of thrash and death metal across their primarily heavy pallet, you’d think these hardcore guys are all about fornication through intimidation and anarchy sanctioned tax evasion. But like the impression given from the twilight shaded cover art, morose themes of sorrow and contemplation color the artistic ambitions of this gloom metal album. This album reveals the difficult personal turmoil of a bereaved father; lead singer Ronstin Smith lost his fifteen-year-old daughter to the soul consuming conditions of mental illness and an unfortunate subsequent suicide. Plagued by heartache and an unthinkable loneliness, Ronstin and his band have endured the past few years taking necessary steps towards mourning their incredible loss and overcoming their own melancholia; this album is the result of their healing process.
As with Ska, metal music has never been my forte, but I do have a better understanding of its place in music culture as a genre that makes the explicit effort to offer a supportive and inclusive community for would-be outcasts. The “Intro” track does just this, seducing the listener with spacey swells of slides, pull-offs, and sexy chord strums, filling the air of your headphones with a mellow wash of introspective guitar delay. Drums kick in half way through, but things don’t get hard quite yet, as the song calms back down with the lead guitar ringing out into silence, leaving us with ten seconds of dead air; time allotted for reflection of the track’s tranquility, just before getting our ears assaulted by the brutal grit of “In These Wilds”. Busting in with harsh djent strumming and growled vocals, the song’s lyrics describe the nightmarish nagging of an inner demon, bullying the singer into duress, forcing him to question in unbearable agony “Do We Really Have Control?” Track three “The Note” opens hard and fast, with all instruments ringing out tight and right on time with the drummer’s persistent hits; this track weaves and tumbles to the heated momentum of a muted kick that trembles like a racing heartbeat, bearing through the rush of fear and confusion only the death of a loved one can induce. Other favorites of mine are “Working Through the Shit”, which has fantastic variety in structure and frantic playing, “Missing Person”, with its bright drum production and alteration to clean vocals half way through, and “A Sad Song”, which does a nice job of characterizing the singer’s dysphoria through spoken word narrative and a crazed demon-esque chorus.
Vocal delivery and playing aside, the production of the album tends to be a bit shoddy; the bass on most songs is a bit too low in the mix for my liking. “Working Out the Shit” opens with a tasty high neck bass slap that should have swelled over the rest of the instruments; instead it’s barely audible and disappears within the high gain of the rhythm and lead guitars. “Sorrow Can Be A 4 Letter Word” has a sloppy sound unlike any other track in the album, and while it could be messier for my tastes, doesn’t seem appropriate when compared to the more or less neutral production of its companion tracks.
All in all, this album is a harsh but heartfelt testimony to the devastation suicide can bring to a loving parent. While the subject matter is bleak, taking the time to explore Ronstin’s strife should serve as solace for those who also have gone through such tragedy, or are concerned for loved ones who they fear may be on the verge of a self-destructive path. To quote the album’s bandcamp description “We would like to remind anyone reading this that this album is about surviving…You may not feel it all the time but you are loved and you are wanted.” If Ronstin can make it back home, then anyone can.
Unkempt Herald is currently booking local shows for spring and are looking towards the west coast this summer. Check out their music video for “Missing Person” here: