Album Review: Harvey Milk’s “A Small Turn of Human Kindness”

Oddly enough, one might not find a listing of Harvey Milk on most metal websites. Apparently they don’t fit the genre. But if the neophyte listened to them, nasty metal would be the first words out of his or her mouth. But regardless of what genre they fall within, Harvey Milk have accrued a cult following over their almost twenty year career, apparently anyways. The true wonder about this underground group is that they are more popular now than they were back in the 90’s. Leave that to the power of the internet I guess. In a March interview, band members mostly recount their past failures, er albums, showing their humility and broad range. So why’s this album so great when considering their back catalog? They have pulled everything good about their past albums together to create a heart-wrenching LP that is both slow, but not too slow as to bore the listener; and complex, but not to complex to confuse or distract him or her; yes, as Goldilocks would say, it’s just right.

Their self-deprecation makes them all the more likable. The band frequently denigrates what they do (“We have reached the point of complete and total creative bankruptcy, but at least we made it shorter than the last record, so you can get through listening to it and return it to the store for a refund faster.”), and they are either dead serious, knowing that this music does not appeal to the majority of people listening to music these days, or their level sarcasm eclipses the number of time, key, and movement changes in their songs.

But let’s take back a step before I get into the meat of this new record. I first became acquainted with Harvey Milk when I picked up their 2008 release “Life…The Best Game in Town.” I’d never heard of them or listened to them, so I couldn’t quite appreciate (until collecting more of their back catalog) that they had pulled together the many disparate parts of their musical styles, including concrete-embankment-filled droning feedback, fast, punk-like runs, punctuated and prefaced by Creston Spier’s delightful wails and screams. Yet, fittingly “A Small Turn” is named after the first track on their debut album “My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be,” an album filled with slow, slow, (slow) sludge passages. Unlike “My Love is Higher,” “A Small Turn” is shorter, more compact, and stands as a statement meant to be heard in one go, yet it still does not have a definitive linear structure. Right, it’s not pop music by any means, but there’s something about this album that flows unlike any of their previous attempts.The instrumental opener provides an easy ramp towards what the album will deliver as it slowly connects three different guitar motifs repeatedly book-ended by a few notes from the low end and sparse, yet slowly building symbol crashes, into what sounds like a precursor to Buddhist meditation music. The band uses the same, or similar, bass line from the first track in “I Just Want To Go Home,” only now the guitar lead really blossoms with acid-like feedback dancing slowly around the thumping of the bass line and drums.

“I Am Sick of This All Too,” may test the casual listener’s patience as it presents a series of ascents towards what may seem like climaxes (I have always been a sucker for such dynamics: songs that build slowly towards the inevitable crescendo–something that makes for visceral and memorable music listening; however, the band members seem to realize the telegraphing effect that this structure presents.). Instead, however, of allowing the song to explode, the band arranges the song so that it starts over and over. Spiers slowly bellows in Steinian fashion “why,” “sick,” and “love” over and over again so much that the words become no more than noises of discontent.

The song quickly segues into “I Know This Is No Place For You,” the album’s closest example of a complete song. Yet, for me, the song simply marks the album’s halfway point and nothing more. I find it to be the weakest on an album overflowing with brilliant anguish and melancholy. “I Alone Got Up And Left” slowly makes its presence known with a slow and off kilter drum intro followed by a cold molasses sludge riff that makes you want to swallow hard, twice. But the real gem on the album, and my favorite track is “I Know This Is All My Fault.” It starts with the subtle glassy background synth lines and a convulsively repetitive guitar riff that slowly meanders around the parent scale. It’s one of those songs that catches your ear if you’re not really paying attention to the music, and once it catches your ear, you realize that there’s something deeply emotional about the song as Spiers admits that he’s sorry and accepts fault for something that I don’t quite catch. The album ends with “I Did Not Call Out,” which is a wonderful capstone for the LP. It’s composed of spiraling guitar riffs and multiple key changes as it seems to pay tribute to classic rock (of some sort).

I’ve read reviews comparing Harvey Milk to Black Sabbath, or stating that the band has strong lyrical connections with Leonard Cohen (apparently, they themselves site him as a source of inspiration), and noting the Sunn O))) similarities, but I don’t see any of these bands in Harvey Milk. The band creates off-kilter, melancholic songs which keep this listener interested through the entirety of “A Small Turn of Human Kindness.” They pepper in just enough musical “pop” to guide the listener through a triumphantly successful musical journey, but probably the most salient thing that I take away from this album, is that they achieve success while not situating their work with bands they could easily emulate, copy, or consort with. They’re too odd to fit with inteli-sludgers Isis and Neurosis; and they’re too funny to fall within the avant-gard camp of Sunn O))) or Boris. Spiers and company have created an album both modest and monolithic, that, while begging repeated listens, still offers an immediate emotional draw for the listener.

Harvey Milk - A Small Turn of Human Kindness

This entry was posted in Album Review, Doom Metal, Metal.

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