by Morgan Greenwood (@totemmotet)
Brooklyn’s Bethlehem Steel has just given us their new self-titled full-length album, their fifth release overall and their third on Exploding in Sound Records. A self-titled record can sometimes denote a certain intensity of objective—instead of relating a group of songs (outwardly, at least) to a phrase or image there is only the group’s name, making it feel more definitive of the group as a whole. Here, it makes total sense. This record strikes one as the confident expression of a band very solid in what they’re making. If one looks at the liner notes, they can see another expression of this: their previous full-length (Party Naked Forever) was credited as being written by vocalist and guitarist Rebecca Ryskalczyk, while Bethlehem Steel credits the band itself as writing the songs. This is a band hitting their stride and their prime.
The first track, “Sponge,” starts hypnotically with a single bass chord, repeated. Ryskalcyzk’s vocals enter, low and quiet until the whole thing explodes. The band develops the material over the course of the first few minutes, but then an interesting thing happens. On a dime, the whole song becomes entirely different—the tempo has jumped up considerably, with entirely new instrumental parts—the musical equivalent of a jump cut. This is the type of moment that could fall flat entirely if it were not executed as confidently as it is, especially considering how monolithic the song had been up until that point. Instead it jolts you back into the world of the song. It’s slightly disorienting, but you know you as a listener are in good hands.
Some songs are more straight-ahead rock (the next two songs “Govt Cheese” & “Empty Room” spring to mind) but executed just as well. “Couches” brings in a cello and, starting small, reaches a fever-pitch in less than three minutes. This song performs the constant-crescendo type of song-structure as well as anything I’ve heard in years. “Not Lotion” eschews sung vocals for a spoken-word piece that is honestly harrowing (it starts “She’s looking at me like she knows I don’t pray / Asks me earnestly what I’ve been doing with my life / Well, I’ve been repressing as little as possible, how bout you?”).
The last three tracks are an incredible stretch of music, including the most intense song on the entire record, the album closer “New Dark.” It deals with trauma and re-meeting your abusers in a tremendously unadorned, open way. It truly drives home the horror of the situation but more importantly empowers the victim through catharsis—“We’re all so proud you’ve been working on yourself / At least that’s what you told me / But you can’t erase violation.” This is a song that has remained with me for days after just one listen. The silence that follows this song, after it and the record has ended, seems like the deepest I’ve ever heard.