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Harvey Milk - A Small Turn of Human Kindness

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Artist: Harvey Milk

Album: A Small Turn of Human Kindness

Label: Hydra Head

Review date: May. 17, 2010

Athens weirdcore trio Harvey Milk is a blessedly difficult band to “know.” They frustrate category, aesthetic response, and heavy music scene politics in estimable, admirable ways. On the heels of their feedback-saturated return to recording – first the somewhat tentative Special Wishes and then 2008’s Life . . . the Best Game in Town – they return with A Small Turn of Human Kindness, an album named after the very first track on their 1996 debut.

A seven-part dirge, this album continues to refine their mixture of heavy riffage, sheer noise, and unexpected detours into introspection and delicate, emotional instrumentalism. But there’s something about the long form here that brings these elements out really vividly, freshly, in ways that suggest new discoveries and new paths taken. They remain a very patient, un-showy group, happy to let the heaviest of heavy chords – you can hear the speaker cones straining, their detuned strings flapping – simply wash over the spare shapes that make up these compositions. But what gives this music greater power and urgency is vocalist Creston Spiers’ dark dreamings.

His rattling holler is like the croaky sound that Neurosis’ Scott Kelley has recently unearthed, crossed with the phrasing of Sonic Youth’s “Marilyn Moore.” The album’s themes of lovelorn despondency might seem about as innovative as dirt, but the music breathes inspiration into them. The slow moving notes of the opening “*” – big major motifs moving in vast space and amp resonance, flirting with the anthemic – form the basic materials that are layered and layered in patient pursuit of the line. As the music emerges to form a mid-tempo crawl in “I Just Want to Go Home,” the fuzz and decay left in the wake of each crashing punctuation, each howl, create their own context beyond “heavy” signification. Things don’t so much move forward as bloom darkly, as feedback floods the pulse or as a brief staccato pattern cups a descending line (“I Am Sick of All This Too”).

It’s compelling from the start, particularly insofar as they not only avoid genre clichés but also cheap drama. Instead, they play emotionally ambiguous stuff – shifting modes and dynamics, or rather simply smashing them together until the edges are indistinct – that makes room for tart harmony (“I Know This is No Place for You”), cheeseball ‘80s keyboards (“I Know This is All My Fault”), and even some pitch-bending Southern-fried riffs on the closing “I Did Not Call Out.” None of these elements stands out or calls attention to itself; they simply emerge organically as the basic materials (not just the motif of the opener but the “I” of the titles) are continually revisited and reworked.

Singular and absorbing, Spiers chronicles his – his character’s? – beaten but not broken hope for some buried treasure from the wreck of a relationship (“In the dead gray ashes there was grace” he sings in the end). And Harvey Milk once again shake the dust from labels and produce music that’s heavy by virtues of its convictions and emotional integrity. In their music it’s easy to hear the roots of feted bands like Baroness and Kylesa, but I’m increasingly likely to think of this music – with its dark stew of minimalism, repetition, and abjection – as the blues.

By Jason Bivins

Other Reviews of Harvey Milk

Special Wishes

Courtesy And Goodwill Toward Men

Life...The Best Game in Town

Read More

View all articles by Jason Bivins

Find out more about Hydra Head

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