Under Review

author
Todd McCluskie

Famed German-American writer Charles Bukowski once wrote “don’t swim in the same slough.” But there are times when an extended dip wading in shards of dark, gooey death metal seems oddly appealing. A good starting point for this sort of wallow would be “Eastern Vancouver’s” Sludge trio Balkan and their self-titled November 2021 release. The sparse album art of glittering corpses at twilight tells the story — and it’s not afternoon tea and crumpets at Grammas’s house. We waste no time languishing in the murky fog.

The proceedings ensue with an uneasy squeal of apocalyptic feedback — the 9:19 track “Burial Hammer.” Death wish doom power chords and the all too familiar status-quo black metal Darth Vader vomit vocals. The ominous opening composition clearly unravels — discarding us to an unforgiven, sinister and unspeakable late night ritual. Could this be the sound of hell? Heavy shit. It’s too bad though that the lyrics are either a) non-existent b) indistinguishable or c) reduced to a primal regurgitation of sorts. We soon bleed into the next cut, a desperate coagulation titled “Become Wrath.” Slightly shorter at 7:14, but equally as epic. I sizzle in my self-imposed audio hell and embrace the soundtrack of my early demise. Die young and leave a good looking corpse — or at least a mildly attractive one. I’m getting the feeling that the obligatory deep cut sleeper ballad will not be a part of this effort. A fuzzed out bass line breaks the barrage before we return to the drudgery. Track three, “Armor of Leeches,” clears the muddy waters — this band knows how to jam the feedback. The gut-wrenching growl keeps on and the hellish exploits continue. 

Balkan is Chris H – Bass/Vocals, Dusty M – Drums, and Rob B – Guitars. They describe this record as “Songs about our shared human suffering” … yes! Interestingly the album is available on a limited High-bias cassette tape “packed with 34 minutes of dismal sludge death doom” … now who still has a functional Walkman?

At 1:05, the second to last tune “Goring Hook” is no slouch, complete with the pitter-patter of Dusty M’s rapid tom-tom action, reminding one of Lucifer pounding his burning chest. And then of course we have the conclusive “Crossing the Vile.” This is clearly the most dynamic and strongest of the five tracks. I’m into this one. An infectious guitar riff — Sabbath meets Soundgarden meets Mayhem (hopefully minus the church burning) — that is as close to a hook as you’re going to get from Balkan. The somewhat sullen spiritual chant interlude at about the 4:45 mark takes us gently down for a moment and then we return to the violent drone of the depths of despair. 

Balkan.

Bleak music for bleak times.

Burn baby burn.

If I were asked to describe this record in one sentence, I would say it’s as if Angry BlackMen got a float in the Black Parade. But while it’s easy to try and fit Drowning Lessons into boxes, the record’s identity is ever-shifting and eager to fake the listener out with various curveballs. Jodie Jodie Roger explores several genres and ideas throughout a winding thirteen tracks, twisting and incorporating them into intense auditory experiences that are sure to make both the most uninitiated of hip hop and hardcore fans headbang at least once. 

Speaking of exploring different genres, Jodie Jodie Roger brings two collaborators onto this record (although both are actually the artist themself) — the 808-bouncer with a gothic flair, Solomon Grundy, and the sludgy, melodramatic, metal-adjacent Rudi Sainte-Cloud, both of whom bring unique sonic flavours to their respective halves of the record. The album centres on both of these character’s separate struggles, and as the artist states, it acts as “a poetic retelling of unfortunate events.” The brutal, pounding synthscapes of Grundy’s work are equal parts catchy and unsettling, the perfect bed for Jodie Jodie Roger’s own screaming brand of rap. Jodie Jodie Roger is no slouch as a vocalist, flowing effortlessly over album opener “Brittle Bones” and gothic-tinged banger “Silk Stait-Jackets.” With a taste for the dramatic, Solomon Grundy certainly brings a performance that will outlast the brevity of their namesake. Meanwhile, the Sainte-Cloud portion of the album dives headlong into more experimental and genre-bending territory. From the melting array of background synths on “Pussification,” to the happy-hardcore bop “Momento Horni,” which also easily takes the prize for my favourite track title, ever. Of all time. 

It should not be understated how much of a phenomenal producer Jodie Jodie Roger is. The desolation buried within the crunchy bass and raging lyrical performance on Grundy’s half of the album is more than enough evidence of this. This doesn’t prevent them from having fun with their work, however, being able to inject light-hearted stabs into a record that can feel crushing at times. “A Flair for the Histrionics,” the third track on the record, shows their sample savviness with a cheeky snippet that some folks in certain spaces will certainly recognize. Meanwhile, the Sainte-Cloud track “808’s & Cocaine” takes a speedy left-turn into the realm of bubblegum pop, if you can believe that, before suddenly dropping into a punk-styled section that could give anyone the greatest blast of auditory whiplash ever.

The record ends on Dolce Vitae, a meandering sonic spiral that grants the listener safe egress from Jodie Jodie Roger’s debut record. I would also love to mention that this song is the absolute best a MIDI guitar has ever sounded, without a shred of doubt. Genre-wise, it sits on the near opposite end of where everything started, completely instrumental and bereft of those sweetly sick 808s, yet it couldn’t feel more fitting. Much like its starring cast, Drowning Lessons is diverse and intense in all the right ways. It shrugs off any label you try to throw at it, and like it or not, it will drag you kicking and screaming into its own ring. You may not be drowning when you listen to this record, but it will certainly leave you wanting another dive in when you’re finished.