Rage, with more colors: Erik Stenglein of Northless
The Milwaukee metal band plays Mr. Robert's on July 25.
To listen to Milwaukee band Northless, who play Mr. Robert's on July 25, is to be pulled between gorgeously layered doom metal and a degree of excoriating negativity that's surprising even in the realm of heavy music. Songs like "Not Made For Existence," on 2011's album Clandestine Abuse, or "Communion," from last year's World Keeps Sinking, suggest a post-metal influence simply by virtue of their convoluted, lengthy scope, but the actual sounds aren't easy to just bliss out on. They're harsh and clawing, and evoke rage-fueled hardcore and even the ritualistic pummeling of Swans.
These contrasting tendencies have created an increasingly nuanced, distinctive sound that isn't too indebted to any one inspiration or subgenre. On World Keeps Sinking, guitarists Erik Stenglein and Nicholas Elert noticeably focus more on crafting twisty, patiently unfolding melodies, and bassist Jerry Hauppa both complements those melodies and undergirds them with a sludgy rumble. Drummer John Gleisner helps the songs hang together in unlikely ways, for instance as 'World Keeps Sinking' track "Kuru" pivots from a steady, trudging doom song into a spiraling, suspenseful passage of feedback and flickering guitar leads. The anger shows no signs of abating: The band's promo copy for World Keeps Sinking promises "to show you the depths of humanity... to drag you down." But what it really feels like is that Stenglein, also the band's vocalist and lyricist, is determined to cram the songs with as much dark shit as possible to make the catharsis of heavy music that much more complete.
Northless has been writing new songs for an upcoming split 12-inch with Primitive Man (a doom outfit that signed to Relapse Records last year) and a 10-inch split with Columbus, Ohio instrumental band Before the Eyewall. Ahead of Northless' Madison show, Stenglein, who's also the band's vocalist, talked with me about how the band's songwriting has evolved and the finer points of being labeled a "tech-sludge" band.
Tone Madison: On World Keeps Sinking, it sounds like you're more confident than on Clandestine Abuse and more willing to let melodies play out and expand. Do you think that's the case?
Erik Stenglein: Yeah, I definitely think so. With Clandestine Abuse, it was our first record as a four-piece, and I think we were still kind of feeling out what we wanted to do, because we're four dudes with pretty different backgrounds, musically. I think on the new record, I took a little more of a front seat. 'Clandestine Abuse,' it was a little more writing together in collaboration, and on this one, I think I came in with more of a preconceived idea of what I wanted it to be like. But of course I don't want to downplay their contributions. We went through these songs together as a band and fine-tuned them and made sure that everybody had their input behind everything. I think we all listen to a lot more melodic stuff. We all come from that '90s emo, math-rock kind of thing, we've all played in bands like that. I think the new record has more colors to it than Clandestine Abuse did. World Keeps Sinking definitely has different elements to it that the last record didn't.
Tone Madison: Texturally and production-wise, the two records are very different. Clandestine Abuse has more of a doom-y vibe, but that gets reined in a bit on 'World Keeps Sinking.'
Erik Stenglein: As we were making World Keeps Sinking, I distinctly remember we were in the studio and we took a totally different approach to how we recorded guitars, and there are a lot more elements here in the bass playing that weren't there before. Jerry's been in the band for four years now, but he didn't play on Clandestine Abuse, so he brought a new vibe and feel to the new one, and brought out a lot of melodies that might not have been brought out before. Our goal was to make sure that this record was clearer-sounding, but still sounded really big.
Tone Madison: And the new album has lots of softer passages, and on "Returnless" there's this wah-wah guitar part, and that sort of jumped out at me as something I wasn't expecting. Did you do a lot of experimenting with different sounds and textures?
Erik Stenglein: We did. We kind of brought all our pedal toys to the studio. We wanted there to be things that you maybe wouldn't catch in the first couple listens but that would be there and that you'd kind of hear as you listened more. One band that I really like is Soundgarden, and I think a lot of what they do with different tunings and effects pedals on their older records, I really got into that sort of stuff in the '90s. I guess I'm sort of a '90s dude. I would say all my favorite bands, pretty much, started in the '90s, and a lot of them didn't make it through the '90s.
Tone Madison: What are some specific records from that period that influence you?
Erik Stenglein: Certainly, Soundgarden, like Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, and Down On The Upside. His Hero Is gone, all of their records did a lot for me. I think my favorite one is probably 15 Counts Of Arson. Monuments To Thieves, that's another great record of theirs. I like the math-ier rock stuff, like Envy, from Japan, they've been a huge influence on me, or any of that scream stuff, like Orchid—the 'Chaos Is Me' record is one of my favorites. Of course, there's what I'd call typical doom stuff, like I really like the first couple Crowbar records, like the self-titled one and Broken Glass. And I went back and I listened to a lot of the Crowbar stuff that I hadn't listened to in years, and stuff like Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, all that stuff really had a big influence on me. Coalesce are a band I really like, Give Them Rope and Functioning On Impatience. They're jut so bottom-heavy and they're kind of technical but not in a dumb way. Their riffs have a lot of twists in them that seem pretty organic.
Tone Madison: Those Coalesce guitar parts are so weird and bend-y.
Erik Stenglein: Bands that do what I would call the technical thing in a way that's not as obvious—in a lot of death metal, they're all over the fretboard, they're doing stuff that they very clearly wrote to be kind of bizarre and crazy, whereas stuff like Coalesce or even some of those '90s math-rock bands, the technical aspect is secondary to them trying to express a melodic idea. When people say, "Oh, you're a tech-sludge band," I'm like, well, I think the tech thing is kind of unintentional, at least for me. It's just kind of how we write. It's not because we're trying to pretend we're Joe Satriani or something.
Tone Madison: How do you think your vocal style has evolved over the time that you've been doing Northless?
Erik Stenglein: You know, unfortunately, I don't think it really has. I think I've gotten better at what I do. I think the new record probably has some of my best vocals on it, but that's one of the things I still really struggle with, personally, is to get the vocals to sound how I want them to. In some of the new material we're working on right now, there's a fair bit more clean vocals and I've been trying to really work on those. Those clean vocals on "The Storm," on Clandestine Abuse, I did most of the vocals on that track and it's OK but in retrospect I could have done it a lot better. I'm newer to the clean-singing thing. And there were a few moments on our demo that were clean singing that I did, and then on the Valley Of Lead 10-inch, our drummer John sang on that and he's a really awesome clean vocalist so he might end up doing all our clean vocals recorded and we'll split it up live. I'm trying to bring more of that to the table because some of the newer stuff calls for a really strong clean singing kind of thing, so a little more of that's coming through. I'm working on that really hard.
Tone Madison: Why is there such a fascination with decay and depravity in your music? I mean even for a metal band you're really emphatic about dredging up that side of life, and you make it really overt in your liner notes.
Erik Stenglein: Collectively, we're all pretty angry. I know for me personally, since I write all the lyrics, I'm a pretty angry dude and I've been pretty angry as long as I can remember. I try to write about things that I have experiences with and that I understand. I see a lot of the negative side of people on a regular basis. I think we all do. It's something I've always been focused on. I don't see a lot of positivity in the way people treat each other and the way the world runs right now, so I like to see a reflection of that. When I get angry, what I get passionate about is those sorts of things, and it's kind of like a catharsis. It's all super-personal, but I don't try to be obvious about it because I want people to be able to take their own interpretation from it. I mean, I think I'm a pretty friendly dude most of the time and I don't try to harp on anyone who doesn't deserve it, but it's helpful for me to have music like that. I have a lot of positive things in my life, but I don't feel the need to sing about that.