Album art for Expulsion's Nightmare Future.

Album Review: Expulsion – Nightmare Future

Whenever big-name musicians drop a world-quaking collaboration, is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? I asked myself that question time and again throughout the entirety of Nightmare Future, the first album by newly formed punk/crust/grind supergroup Expulsion, which enlists the legendary talents of Matt Olivo (Repulsion), Matt Harvey (Exhumed), Menno Verbaten (Lightning Swords of Death), and Danny Walker (Exhumed, Phobia). Writing songs that works to each members’ individual talents can’t be easy, but you’ll be pleased to know that Expulsion proves it can be executed with merciless ease.

It’s always tempting when supergroups rely too much on the individual talents of its members (noodling around in look-at-me solo sections to the detriment of the songs). But the genres Expulsion plays around in aren’t known for unnecessary flash, and Nightmare Future reflects this with succinct, deadly-simple song compositions that are like shots of pure adrenaline. Danny Walker uses a blast beat-heavy playing style that propels each of the album’s seven songs, unexpectedly interjecting them into frantic half measures between d-beats and dynamic crashing. Matt Harvey’s buzzsaw guitar riffs augment the assault with sulphurous tremolo patterns, though on songs like Total Human Genocide he occasionally drops out entirely to let Menno Verbaten’s bass, which rumbles in the bottom level, to come into the spotlight. And on each song, Matt Olivo spews lyrics of the end times like a doomsayer, his toxic delivery demanding your undivided attention. Nightmare Future might be short, but there’s enough song variation and dynamics packed in every track to keep you clinging to every split-second.

It’s worth noting that Expulsion has been described by PR circles as delivering a “vile brand of 80s sickness.” It strikes me as interesting then that the production comes across cleaner than an operating room table. The blasts punch through with powerful clarity, and the bass is a gritty, audible delight. Those aren’t bad qualities, but Nightmare Future sounds unabashedly modern, and I think that’s worth noting for fans who like their crust and grind a little more, well, crusty and grindy.

It must be tough having a prominent musical pedigree — even more so when collaborating with others of similar talents. But when it all comes together as well as it does on Nightmare Future, there can be few complaints among creators or fans. Expulsion shows us what happens when talented individuals accomplish something great, and it just so happens to be a glorious vision of a future ending in swirling, all-consuming flames.

Nightmare Future is out July 11th via Relapse Records. Old-school skateboard grind to your nearest record shop or digital dealer and expulse your wallet of funds to buy it.

Gorgonna, walking before a veritable wall of Thomas & Friends toys.

Idol Worship: Thomas & Friends

“Peep, peep!” All aboarrrrd! FOR OBSESSION.

It didn’t take long for Gorgonna to begin paying tribute to a new deity. Although she’s been idolizing both Daniel Tiger and Thomas the Tank Engine for nearly the same length of time, our ebullient engine has been swiftly picking up steam as the primary divine power.

But from my standpoint, all’s not well with this latest change in faith. The Island of Sodor, where Thomas & Friends reign, has been well-known to the likes of Man (and Man’s Childs) for over seventy years, with TV programs, books, and toys serving as the holy word and scripture. To this day, its perverse nature has been seriously understated — like a thinly veiled Shyamalanian plot, something dark and twisted has been lurking amidst this well-to-do English island of industry…

A creatively reassembled Thomas, made from Mega Bloks.
John Carpenter’s “Thomas & Friends.”

A Thomas Upon Us

Sentient trains populate this depraved hell-dimension. Faces have been carved into them –by whom I know not — making them the steam-powered counterparts to the Game of Thrones‘s weirwoods. As impulsive and vindictive as Norse gods, the engines bicker and fight amongst themselves in the name of “hard work” and being “Really Useful.”

Deifying these denizens of diesel and steam are an enslaved human population. They’re at the mercy of these loco locomotives — literally along for the ride, as every driver seems utterly powerless to stop his engine from fucking up the countryside or getting into who-knows-what kind of tedious mischief. That “Sodor” rhymes with “Mordor” can’t be coincidence — the twisted world of Thomas & Friends is every bit as bleak as Lord Sauron’s domain.

Gorgonna, coloring in the Book of Thomas.

Now, I’m all for Gorgonna getting stoked about new stuff — especially when it comes to male-dominant vehicular pursuits (it’s 2017, trucks and trains ain’t just for boys). And although I may have embellished in the previous section for entertainment’s sake, I can’t say I entirely support the conceptual pillars that have held up Thomas & Friends for three decades.

For one, the adventures that the engines have — and by extension, the books and television episodes we indulge Gorgonna with on a daily basis — rarely have a wholesome message to them. I wasn’t kidding about likening Thomas and his engine pals to Odin, Loki, Thor, and Co. — when you get down to it, when the boiler runs dry, they really do seem like a bunch of juvenile brats. There are few substantial lessons tying the stories together — no morals to transmit onto impressionable young minds. The fictitious world of Thomas & Friends is portrayed as a series of random, unrelated, ultimately pointless events:

 

  • Episode One: Trucks cause mischief for the engines. They fuck up everyone’s schedules. The end.
  • Episode Two: Sir Topham Hatt’s car wants to go fast. He does, and he is admonished for it.
  • Episode Three: The naughty Diesel has to stop being naughty because Thomas saw that he liked some ducks.

 

Like, you don’t have to bust a blood vessel picking out thematic elements to all of those scenarios — tidy little morals you could feasibly wrap up into tidy little vignettes — but are they present in the actual episodes? Nope. Shit just happens on Sodor; the wheels turn and turn, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. It’s an autonomous world that doesn’t care how many kids are watching or what educational value it imparts. Maybe there’s a zen quality you can get from that, but there are FAR better sources for that, I think.

Also, “Usefulness” isn’t a quality I’m thrilled that Thomas & Friends is projecting onto its young viewers. I understand there’s probably some kind of brand guide, possibly bound in the grotesque, leathery skin of Rev. W. Awdry’s corpse (may he rest in peace), but the Thomas team could afford to be a little flexible. It’s a tough time for the Arts, and every offering needs to pull its weight.

James, dripping in white... milk.
This picture of James presented to you entirely without context.

His Dark Materials

The primary difference between Thomas and other, newer gods is his sheer presence. Criticize him all you want — the merchandise is ON POINT. What started as a few board books here and there for Gorgonna’s reading pleasure has proliferated into two pajama sets, a coloring book, a shirt, and several wooden toys. She’s delighted when she gets to wear the Steam Team to bed, and she could flip through her Thomas “mazagine” all day. He’s omnipresent, the Alpha and Omega.

And it’s not just the relics we have in our home — Gorgonna has found houses of the holy in the local library, as well as the Barnes & Nobles scattered across our fair county. Each one houses an altar — a coveted train table — upon which his disciples enact the engines’ earthly adventures. And while the entire steam- and diesel-powered pantheon are available to her, Gorgonna choo-choo-chooses Thomas — even if another kid is currently playing with him. Gorgonna would bust into a confessional if it meant getting one-on-one time with Tommy Boy himself.

She has, however, begun devoting her affections to Gordon, the big, haughty express train; her smitten reactions to the very sight of him would be enough to make ol’ Tom jealous.

Spencer, from Thomas & Friends, covered in brown... mud.
Not even Spencer is safe from the nocontext treatment.

Pulling into Incantation Station

Thankfully, we don’t own any Thomas videos; they’re strictly stream engines (sorry). But that doesn’t keep me from panicking every time we boot an episode up because I know the insufferable theme song is going to drill deep into my skull and make itself at home for the next few days. Singing British children are a universal fear, a horrifyingly contagious force that compels you to follow them into whatever hell they’ve got planned for you. (Although I’ll admit that “Shunting trucks!” makes for an appealing alternative swear-word.)

Still, as excruciating as it is, the main theme is worlds better than the Thomas team’s attempts at appealing to a modern, hip crowd:

I don’t normally associate cock rock with iconic train-themed children’s shows, but someone over there clearly has the right vision.

Benediction

Despite all this, I find that trains, in whatever form they happen to take, are still pretty fucking neat. Powerful metal machines, racing noisily along, blasting their horns belligerently — I don’t know, man. Maybe the kids are onto something…

Wait — what am I saying? Oh, good one, Thomas! You almost got me there! You see, his allure is more potent than I’d anticipated. I’m already buying into Gorgonna’s obsession — every time we find ourselves at a toy store, I feel an irresistible pull toward the wall of Thomas toys, thinking how neat it’d be for Gorgonna to own all her favorites…

We’re metalheads; collections are in our blood.

My advice to you is if you value your wallet as much as your sanity (or if you simply think a train with a face is freakish), you could do worse than to stay far, far away from Thomas and his brood. Save yourself a heap of trouble. But if your kid’s got an eye for the classics, like her father before her, then be prepared to invest.

The sophomore effort

They say a band’s sophomore album is their hardest. Capturing success, catching lightning in a bottle twice — how do you manage that?

Of course, I’m suggesting I’ve had a “successful” second year of raising Gorgonna, and it’s been anything but that. Oh, it hasn’t been a complete failure either, but I’m trying to make this analogy work, okay?

Parental success is hard to measure — less so for famous musicians (I imagine you just check how many groupies you’ve got tucked away under each arm). There’s no quantifiable metric parents can look to that shows what we’re doing has much of, well, any effect on our offspring; those are rewards (or ramifications) we won’t see ‘til long, long into the future.

But for those of us putting the finishing touches on our children’s sophomore year, we’ve already seen the kinds of changes in store for them. Changes that weren’t creeping over the horizon, but were happening each and every one of 364 days. I watched Gorgonna morph from Baby into Toddler. I saw her successes — but I saw her failures, too. And now I’ve tweaked enough levels, run through the tracks enough, to fear that what’s happened in this second year could shape where she’s going for the rest of her life. It’s terrifying looking back on it, yet thrilling — I get an anxious pee-pee-in-my-pants-type vibe from it.

She’s pushing boundaries.

Some bands like to use their sophomore album to wipe the slate clean. Try new things. Step over the boundaries set in place by their first effort. In Gorgonna’s case, Year 2 was all about confronting those boundaries, comprehending them, and then trying to vault clear over them. In terms of complexity, she started looking at her AC/DC problems and began finding Meshuggah solutions.

Gorgonna became determined, spirited, even willful at times. She challenged our rules, trying to find our points of weakness (“maybe this time they’ll let me stand in my chair!”). And we’ve had to double our efforts to set those firm limits in place. Like a band whose hotel-room proclivities usually leaves the place in shambles, there are just some things a manager cannot allow. Not when safety’s at stake.

She’s improving her skills.

Bands that play enough together develop individually and as a unit. They improve their musicianship, expand their compositional creativity, or tighten up their live show. And I can attest (so far, anyway) that it’s been the same with my kid. Gorgonna is growing. Her skills — fine motor, comprehension, vocabulary, and love of reading — have risen dramatically over the past few months. She’s putting in the toddler equivalent of weeks at the rehearsal space, hashing out tunes in preparation of even greater feats. Some of her interests border on obsessive. It’s awe-striking, even scary in a way — and I’m the one who’s going to have to public-relate the shit out of her so those skills keep their upward momentum.

She appeals to different audiences.

Bands that change their sound enough the second go-around can alienate an established fanbase. Audiences expecting the same behavior as before can be sorely disappointed — that was mostly left behind with Baby 1.0, and it ain’t comin’ back. Gorgonna’s public presence — chill, reserved, inquisitive — has transformed with her increased awareness and mental processing power. She shies away if strangers (or even close relatives) look at her, but has little trouble in a roomful of strangers. This changes the “public performance” dynamic a bit, but for the most part Gorgonna’s simply more fun to have around with people she does know. She’s found a new audience — or at least a new style. And that’s changing the way I behave, too.

Conclusion

We can try to steer our progeny down certain paths, and occasionally these do result in short-term victories. But it’s the long-term that’s impossible to forecast; there’s too much daily interference obscuring those murky waters of divination, and we’re forced to focus on the present. “Please finish your peas,” or “let’s brush our teeth.” Maybe being present-minded is a good thing, but the sheer, unfathomable uncertainty of What Will Be is always, always scraping against my rear-most cranial zones.

Fathering Gorgonna is a binding contract. And, oh yes, it’s for life. The sophomore effort is simply the next step in a long, hopefully profitable career, but the stigma — whether that’s the Terrible Twos or the second album — is inescapable. Here’s hoping we all make it through.