by Mike LeSuer (@zebraabraham)
When Dave Collis trills “My violent year, I’ll make you disappear” midway through Slow Mass’ debut LP, On Watch, the paternal figure of Chicago’s DIY rock scene may or may not be referring to his stint heading the chaotic math punk collective My Dad, whose punning titles encapsulating love letters to film and Tom Waits were characterized by Collis’ coarse shouts. By 2016, My Dad was no more, but Slow Mass had emerged, channeling Collis’ dark, dark energy into a twenty-five minute EP of post-hardcore catharsis name-dropping Bruce Lee and Clint Eastwood—two notable figureheads of violent filmographies—without explicitly yearning to watch movies back in his room, womb, or tomb.
As the guitars warm up on On Watch’s prelude—and shortly after when Mercedes Webb’s vocals are all-too-politely accommodated on proper opener “Gray Havens”—it seems clear that Slow Mass is meant to be a parting of ways with the random acts of violence plaguing the Collis canon (see also: Old Fuck). Instead the project quickly reveals itself to be focused on Collis’ multi-instrumental capabilities (he plays most of the instruments throughout, including organ, mandolin, and, uh, “noise”), as well as his rolodex of multi-instrumental collaborators within and without his band. The result is frequently unexpected, as the sax pulls from Sen Morimoto on the afore-quoted “My Violent Years” ease into the post-anything brooding and xx-inspired guitar effects of “Oldest Youngest,” and later the vibraphone and vocal harmonies of “The Author” make way for “Tunnel Vision Quest”’s frilly reeds confirming Sufjan’s vision of Illinois.
While the band really hits its stride early on with the slow, sobering crescendo of “Suburban Yellow” (boasting the hopeless gift shop coffee mug hook “there’s nothing like getting up before dawn to start wasting your life”), “On Watch II” leads the listener into a significantly different—though much more familiar—second half of the album, bursting open with the punishing seventy-second “E.D.” before later inundating us with the nearly unrecognizable “Like Dead Skin,” a how-did-this-get-in-here? garage rock assault that’s less post-hardcore and more pre-eviction. The following “Schemes” splits the difference between Slow Mass’ polarized identities for an intense, moody, and ultimately barreling punctuation to the album, itself followed by the uneasy question mark of “G’s End.”
Despite the total absence of recognizable pop culture references comprising its tracklist, On Watch is Collis’ most cinematic effort to date, structuring itself more like a conventional Hollywood script than an evenly paced record. The violence is still very much in tact, but the restraint shown in the intermittent moments of instrumental dialogue provide an intriguing narrative that frequently proves a highlight itself.