huge thanks to Grayson Currin, Scott Plagenhoef, and the entire Pitchfork staff!
Life...The Best Game in Town
[Hydra Head; 2008]
Had the first incarnation of Athens, Ga. metal band Harvey Milk never released anything after its second record, 1994's Courtesy and Good Will Toward Men, the trio of Creston Spiers, Stephen Tanner, and Paul Trudeau could still claim two of the 90s most bizarre records. The group's sound was high cliffs and deep valleys, start/stop monoliths of feedback and distortion, subtle electronics, thunderous drums, and a vocalist who sang like he'd devoured Tom Waits' soul.
In 1997, the trio made one hell of a musical left turn, churning out a relentless riff-rock record, The Pleaser. Harvey Milk had become a bruising bar-band, recording unyielding anthems with clenched fists and clear focus. Frontman Spiers still sounded menacing, but he now fronted a trio with a newfound melodic steel: "We're having a rock'n'roll party/ I don't care what you been told/ It's too late to be too old/ Party!" he sang on "Rock & Roll Party Tonite", sounding like Kurt Cobain fronting Cheap Trick. Though Harvey Milk 2.0 didn't care to replicate the enigmatic menace of its predecessor, they still sounded tough as rust.
Luckily, Harvey Milk survived beyond those first three records, even if it took them several years to re-enter the studio following The Pleaser. After Trudeau left the band in 1996, Kyle Spence joined for a two-year run. But between 1998 and 2005, with their members scattered between two coasts, no one really heard from the band. Tanner split his time between Portland, Ore., and New York, and Spiers became a music teacher outside of Atlanta. Both drummers picked up work with less memorable acts. Slowly, though, history caught up with Harvey Milk: Longtime friend and fellow Athens expatriate Henry Owings (of Chunklet notoriety) compiled the band's impossible-to-find vinyl output into 2003's The Singles. The Kelly Sessions, released a year later, gathered alternate takes of material from those first two records. Even in death, Harvey Milk got a third chance.
Mostly out of the blue, the band reformed with original drummer Trudeau, releasing 2006's Special Wishes, a half-there recapitulation of that early sonic mass and the rugged rock of The Pleaser. It was, at the least, promising, and enough to further Harvey Milk's intrigue. Then, last year, fates collided when skuzzy sonic master Joe Preston-- long of Thrones and formerly of Earth, Melvins, High on Fire, and Sunn 0)))-- joined. Spence again replaced Trudeau on drums, and the new quartet entered his Georgia studio to record the Hydra Head-issued Life...The Best Game in Town, the best executed Harvey Milk album to date, and one of the most accomplished metal records you'll hear this year.
Appropriately, Life runs a bit like a Harvey Milk Greatest Hits: Most everything the band's ever done right-- from its ultra-dynamic, frighteningly agile early work to the Dixieland Motörhead maul of its later work-- falls into place here, the elements freshly recombined. Rendering tension through silence was an early Milk specialty, for instance, but they generally bisected sustained notes of long riffs, creating a sinister shroud of suspense that lifted slowly. But on "We Destroy the Family", a cover of a 1982 song by confrontational Los Angeles punks Fear, the band swipes the melody and matricidal lyrics only to rebuild the structure with bass quakes and a long pass of unexpected silence: After two minutes of pounding, things go deathly still. The five stillborn seconds feel like enough time to contemplate retirement plans and stock options. You'll jump when the band wrecks its reverie.
"Good Bye Blues" staggers and stumbles through shifting rhythms, too, a panoply of unpredictable rests causing Spiers' slow growl, the guitars' long riffs, and Tanner's drums to slip past one another. The parts coalesce long enough to flirt with ZZ Top bombast before locking into a downbeat stomp. On "Skull Socks & Rope Shoes" Spiers sounds as pained as he did on those early maniacal masterpieces, except he's fortified now by a howling rock band. Playing bass here, Preston completes a turgid rhythm section, while the guitars crest and collapse in menacing waves.
Though the core of Harvey Milk 3.0 sounds like a fully functional alloy of its predecessors, three tracks here establish this incarnation as a different act with distinct ideas: Epic opener "Death Goes to the Winner" twists lyrics from the Velvet Underground and the Beatles ("I'm Waiting for the Man" becomes a taunt, "A Day in the Life" a suicidal threat) and immolates the guitar solo with pangs of feedback and a speaker-splitting drum throb. "Roses", written by Trudeau, shatters any respect for dynamics you might have. "It becomes cigarette smoke/ It matters little/ Love is not so bad," Spiers sings over spare piano notes, his pockmarked croon gilded by harmonies and acoustic guitars. But in the end, it's the mid-album "Motown" that signals the stretch of this band's canvas. Though it carries the group's signature menace, the hummable song delivers a pop-metal precision that's as accurate with its riffs as it is patient with its delivery. Harvey Milk's soul and swagger-- long apparent but often stretched and overdriven-- come together clean at last, the perfect, unpredictable pinnacle for a marvelous maze of a career.