With the United Sons of Toil, I got off on the wrong foot, or at least the wrong question. As I got ready to write about the Madison post-hardcore trio's 2007 debut album, Hope Is Not a Strategy, I e-mailed guitarist-vocalist Russell Hall to ask, "Is this a gimmick?" I wasn't referring to the music.
I wanted to know why the band presented themselves as "populist theoreticians," adopted Soviet propaganda art for album covers, and favored cumbersome song and album titles that marked the songs as despairing cries of oppression and furious screeds for socialism. I ended up writing some pretty enthusiastic things about that record, and I still don't regret it. I'm sad to hear that the band will play their final show this Friday, Oct. 19 at the Dragonfly Lounge.
Not long after I sent Hall that e-mail, I noticed that his reply, "No, it's not a gimmick," became the header quote on the band's MySpace page. (Anyone remember when that used to be a gesture?)
But such is Russell's irascible charm. As a slightly older musician who helped some younger listeners, including me, find enthusiasm for post-punk forebears like Unwound and Drive Like Jehu, he also seemed to feel more comfortable talking trash than most local band dudes. If he found your services as a sound man or booker unhelpful, you were likely to be immortalized as a "fucktard" on USoT's tour blog. He once offered (again, via MySpace, when people expressed themselves through MySpace) a free CD to anyone who could identify all the factual inaccuracies in a Maximum Ink article about the band. After they got done backing it up with a live set, Hall would dismiss those who cheered for more with a terse "Encores are for rock stars!" and start packing up his gear.
More importantly, the band (shorthand: USoT) grew to incorporate not just jagged math-rock but elements of metal and post-rock, all without abandoning its resourceful, austere frame. I've grown to enjoy its music more and more, and I've gotten to like its musicians a great deal as people.
But there's no need to bore you with a ranting hagiography: Hall and current drummer Jason Jensen will keep playing in a post-metal band called Tyranny Is Tyranny, and bassist Bill Borowski in the veteran local surf-punk band Knuckel Drager.
In preparation for USoT's breakup, let's listen to its evolution over the course of six tracks from three different albums.
The first track on Hope is Not a Strategy opens with a scrape of feedback. It grows into a catchy song despite the bleak atmosphere. Though Hall and Borowski proudly restrained themselves to just one distortion pedal and no other effects, they knew how to use those simple elements to create a dynamic range. Around 1:16 and again later in the song, a wiry guitar part re-focuses the looming sadness with a sharp, exciting hook.
USoT don't often play this song live, maybe because it's a relatively gentle moment for a band that takes pride in its command of the harsh and dissonant. The group closes Hope is Not a Strategy by showing how feedback can serve a tune with a graceful, slow build.
USoT's first drummer, Chad Burnett, hit the drums hard. I watched Burnett get nauseous with exertion as I visited the band during the tracking of its second album, 2008's Until the Lions Have Their Historians, Tales of the Hunt Shall Always Glorify the Hunter. The more the rhythm jerked away from a traditional 4/4 patten, the more his forceful style jutted out. His drumming on the intro to "The Forced March of Manifest Destiny" makes it one of the most sinister tracks on the album.
Borowski's bass playing in USoT isn't necessarily flashy, and it isn't all that typical of a post-punk band. Rather than referencing the ominously picked bass lines of, say, the Jesus Lizard, Borowski snuck around conventions with a lot of slides, bends, vibrato and melody. Another highlight of watching the band record Lions was witnessing what he pulled off on the bridges of "White King, Red Rubber, Black Death," a song about exploitation and human-rights abuses in the Congo Free State. The eerie slithers you hear around 0:55 are actually Borowski overdubbing his bass part in three different octaves, perfectly matching the vibrato on each go. Those overdubs took him just a few short minutes to nail.
If you've listened this far, you've noticed Hall's grisly scream. But that doesn't necessarily prepare you for the vocal range he shows on the opening track of the band's third and final album, last year's When the Revolution Comes, Everything Will Be Beautiful. He goes from gargling low to a bloodcurdling scream on the album's first despairing phrase, "Too many stars have gone out." Topical as ever, here he's embodying not simply rage but a feeling of helplessness: "I can't control... I didn't cause... I can't cure it." Sure, there's plenty of bloodshed and political tragedy in USoT's songwriting, but this sticks with me a little more because it centers on an uncertain, in-between emotion. That's a hard thing to render with loud amps and throat-tearing vocals.
When the Revolution Comes incorporated a few new things into USOT's sound -- Jensen on drums, plus some slower tempos and morose, post-rock-inspired melodies to go with them. On one song, there's even a sample of dialogue from the Tim Burton-produced film 9. Despite the broadening sonic palette, one of the stronger tracks starts with a lurch that's as harsh as anything on Lions but features the slow, dragging swing of a heavy pendulum. While locating the political elements of personal moments with lyrics like "a girl tells her first lie," the rhythm justifies the song's title by evoking a feeling of sickly shame. As USoT's work grew more diverse, it became crueler as well.