by Sebastian Friis Sharif
Prolific is a word that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to music critics describing garage punk bands, but when you think about it, it is sort of a redundant word. When you've given up all commercial aspirations, when you're unconcerned with musical training, when you can write a song in 5 minutes, record it in, say, 10 minutes on your 4 track, when there's a buttload of micro-labels with gritty punk aesthetics willing to throw money after your scuzzy rock'n'roll, well, it's easy to be prolific, and thank goodness for that - it's never been easier to satisfy your cravings for lo-fi-grimey bedroom punk.
Useless Eaters' Seth Sutton is exactly the kind of guy that inspires the use of the adjective ”prolific”. Over the last 7 years he has released an avalanche of releases on various labels, many of them self-recorded in typical budget rock fashion. Lately Sutton has grown increasingly ambitious musically, slowly mutating from a fairly straight-forward power chord-plucking garage punk band into something that's more difficult to categorize. That doesn't mean he has slowed down, though. Relaxing Death is Useless Eaters' second release this year, coming only a few months after the excellent 10” EP Temporary Mutilation.
In many ways, Relaxing Death feels like a companion release to Temporary Mutilation. Both releases, as their titles alone reveal, delve into grim, morbid subject matter. Whereas Temporary Mutilation opened up UE's sound by introducing new elements such as a ghostly saxophone, glockenspiel (surprisingly fitting despite being perhaps thee most un-punk instrument short of ukulele), drum machines, and synthesizers, Relaxing Death moves even further into unknown territory more indebted to cold, mechanical electronic music than warm-blooded, riotous rock'n'roll.
The shift in musical direction is audible from the very first second of Relaxing Death. On opener “Industrial Park” the drums clang like metal pipes being struck, the bass buzzes like the deep hum emitted by broken electronic equipment plugged into a socket after 30 years in a garage, the trebly guitars rips your ears like a buzz saw while Sutton barks in his trademark distorted monotone. The title could hardly be more fitting – it's industrial rock in it's most literal sense.
Lyrically Sutton leans towards horror and dark sci-fi, and though Sutton can hardly be called verbose and the lyrics are hard to make out in the sludgy soundscape, he manages to paint a pretty vivid picture when paired with the music. Take “Cold Machine”, a 3 minute slab of arctic synth-punk, with a hook, “operator/cold machine”, that's sure to send shivers down your spine. I get mental images of a sombre factory in a near future where humans are reduced to zombie-like workers, their only function being as operators of machine, like a nightmarish vision of the imminent automatization of jobs. Sutton has stated that the album deals with decay of the modern world, and if this is what he envisions, I wouldn't like a look inside his mind.
Most songs on Relaxing Death eschew regular chord-progressions in favor of a droning bass line and repetitive structures, an approach more akin to Suicide than the Reatards-inspired punk of their earlier releases. The stripped-down highlight “Motorway“ is perhaps the best example of this. Here Sutton cynically sings of “cars crashing throughout the day” while the skeletal, but tightly programmed drum machine and synth-bass line emulate the mundane commuting and the endlessly stretching lanes on the titular motorway. It couldn't be farther from Kraftwerk's romantic view of the “Autobahn” as a place of freedom.
While the repetitive approach could potentially lead the songs to sound samey and blur together, Sutton manages to keep it interesting by having solid hooks and by playing with dynamics and texture. As “Tip of the Valley” kicks off, all the instruments seem to be doing their own thing - the guitar doing dissonant no-wave scratching, the synth slithering in it's own direction, the tom rolls of the drumbeat thundering unstoppably - right up until the chorus when they suddenly fall in line with the infectious bass riff that runs throughout the song for dramatic effect. It's a simple trick, but it works like a charm.
With Relaxing Death, Useless Eaters have made a post-punk record in the sense that it stretches out beyond simple punk aesthetics, but with Sutton's tape crunch-encrusted production it still sounds like a product of the garage punk community. With Temporary Mutilation out on Slovenly and this one out on Castle Face, it looks like it's gonna be a good year for Sutton & co.