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At this point I think I'm done with Bone Awl. I've tried to like them for what feels like forever. I mean, they play raw, noisy black metal mixed with hardcore punk- a great combination if I've ever heard one that should undoubtedly result in phenomenal music. But with every Bone Awl track I've heard (and I've heard far too many of them), their reach far, far exceeds their grasp and their ambitions never crystallize into the sort of defining music other people characterize them as. There's just nothing here- musically, at least. I'll stand by my opinion that Bone Awl definitely has some of if not the best lyrics in metal today, but unfortunately you can't hear any of them and we're listening to music, not reading poetry. A book of poems by the members of Bone Awl I'd pick up. Another tape... nah. I'm good.
Bone Awl's lyrics are ambitious, abstract, beautiful, and nuanced- so why is the music none of those things? I guess that reflects some ambition on their part- juxtaposing the intellect and subtlety of the lyrics with the primitivity of the music- but the problem is the music is in such a confined stylistic box it never even approaches the lyrics in quality. Bone Awl will never surprise you; even their bits of noise, slow, doomy tracks, and dips into ambiance seem calculated and well within the sphere of the style they're emulating. If you haven't heard them, Bone Awl is basically hardcore punk by way of black metal. They have a noisy, thin production job, screechy vocal performance, and nihilistic concept (like black metal), but the musical construction is all primitive hardcore, with simple thrash beats running under an array of violent, ultra-minimal tremolo riffs composed of just a couple chords each most of the time. There is nothing in the way of variation or dynamics for the most part: they just sort of bash things out.
Now I'm all for bands bashing things out but the presentation of the bashing has to be a bit more nuanced than this. For one, the production is a hopeless mess that I'll blame squarely on the band's infamous guitar tone, a rubbery, basslike strum that sounds goofy at best and completely unlistenable at worst. It has no bite or violence to it since there's so little distortion and it does little to match the supremely brackish drums and vocals. The music is relatively violent, I guess, but it's a predictable and safe violence that (yet again) doesn't reflect the sort of animal spirit and terror that the band's lyrics embody. How can you get one thing so right and everything else completely wrong?
I think a lot of people get swept up in this band's (admittedly very well done) aesthetic, but after nearly a decade the Bone Awl aesthetic has become more of a brand than anything because they never bothered to really progress as a band. This stuff probably seemed really frightening and spontaneous when it came out, with its bleary DIY printing, abstract lyrics, and well-made cover art in that primitive anarcho-punk style, but nine years of releases in this style later (and with a self-made label backing it whose site is composed very attractively and professionally) it's a little too calculated for my taste. At this point, Bone Awl knows they're playing Bone Awl to a Bone Awl audience; everyone is getting exactly what they're looking for from this band. More power to them for establishing a strong, consistent brand name, I suppose, but wasn't a band like Bone Awl supposed to be less predictable and audience-friendly than this. I can't say I wouldn't do the exact same thing in their position, but the existentialist, independent spirit reflected by the band's music (ostensibly) makes the whole thing suspicious to me.
Anyway, this tape doesn't have much to offer- like all other Bone Awl releases, it just sort of circles around itself, relying on the aesthetic and aggression to carry it where songwriting doesn't. It is a typical Bone Awl release by every measure and does nothing to differentiate itself from any other given Bone Awl release. Lyrics: phenomenal. Music: mediocre at best.
At the Ellipse's Arc marks perhaps the first time Bone Awl have really dipped in quality since they first began releasing material (for reasons other than pure production/recording problems, anyway). Production issues plague this release as well, but the ratio of good to "meh" riffs is lower than normal, although the good ones are definitely up to par.
Standard Bone Awl Newbie Introduction Speech: Bone Awl essentially play raw punk rock with a few metal elements here and there with ear-destroying black metal screams. The riffs are simple but effective as always and have that oh-so-important trademark Bone Awl mid-range guitar tone that sounds like a fuzzed-out bass playing punk power chords. The band tends to write music in a pretty similar vein throughout their career but normally the riffs are different enough to make distinguishing one song from another quite easy. Not so on At the Ellipse's Arc, where the ending riffs from the title track blend right into the opening bits of "Cornered Slave." Likewise, the end of "W.T.D." is pretty much the same as the beginning of "When I Die." Of course, it's possible the band did this on purpose to achieve some sort of cohesion between the tracks, but the result seems more like a lack of ideas than anything else. The riffs are a hell of a lot weaker here than what we're used to and while there are some standouts ("Cornered Slave" offering the best of the EP's riffs) there are also some duds; the entirety of "When I Die" is just one chord being bashed on with some little accents here and there but rather than droning in a mesmerizing way (as one-chord songs can sometimes be) it's kind of annoying.
The drums are about what you expect out of Bone Awl at this point: primitive punk beats with sprinklings of metal character here and there. The problem is that the cymbals are really overbearing and have that sort of washed-out effect from the signal clipping somewhere down the line. It's particularly obnoxious in this case because the cymbal-bashing is pretty much constant throughout the EP.
As is something of a trend in this era of Bone Awl releases, the vocals are on the buried side. This really hurts their efficacy in delivering the piss-and-vinegar part of the Bone Awl equation (in cased you missed it, the equation is one part piss, one part vinegar, two parts raw punk enthusiasm = totally awesome). He Who Gnashes Teeth is one of my favorite black metal vocalists so it's a shame to see his talents go to waste due to production issues.
A different version of "W.T.D" appears on the 2007 release All Has Red (there called "Will to Die") but otherwise, these songs are exclusive to this EP. The real standout track here is "Cornered Slave" which is a pretty good Bone Awl song hampered by a couple of boring riffs scattered throughout (the faster ones, oddly) but, like the rest of the EP, the lackluster vocals take away from its potential. With only one real gem (and it's a rough-cut one, at that) in the mix, I can't recommend this to any but the most die-hard of Bone Awl fans. Casual listeners can skip this one and newbies should definitely start elsewhere.