4. Drowningman - Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline
Can’t feel my fingers. I can’t feel.
Asked whether “much thought” goes into the titles of their songs in an interview with Brian Webb of The PRP, Drowningman frontman Simon Brody admits:
Yeah I spend a lot of time thinking those up. They do have a lot to do with the songs. It's not the easiest to understand, most black and white way of naming a song but I think it works and it's how we like it.
Read that title over. Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline. It’s a macabre, totally tongue-in-cheek phrase that, apart from being damn catchy, is just code for indifference. For numbness.
Standing, I can feel you. Can you feel me?
Hailing from Burlington, Vermont, a name that might rings bells for those familiar with a certain democratic socialist’s campaign for the presidency, Drowningman’s birthplace was “high schools kids into high school bands playing the heavy ‘mosh’ kind of stuff.” It became Drowningman’s mission to claw their way out as quickly as possible, booking out-of-state shows, signing with Hydra Head Records, and keeping quiet about their roots when they were lumped in with Cave In, Converge, Piebald and other big, Boston-bred acts at the forefront of an emerging national scene. While Drowningman might share a little genre DNA with each of those bands, especially Cave In, they were always a different beast - wry and emotive, crass and spiteful in ways their contemporaries never risked.
I want to hear you try to help me. I want to hear you try to save me.
On their Bandcamp page, where Busy Signal is up for download, there is a blurb by Roderic Mounir, drummer of Swedish metalcore act Knut, written for Hydra Head Records. I think it’s pretty useful to keep an “outside” perspective in the mix in order to locate ourselves in the grander international metalcore scene, and to know what kind of waves we’ve really made in it, but it’s pure coincidence that this is the second time Mounir has indirectly contributed to the American Metalcore Project (he was quoted back in part 1.2, for the curious). I want to include Roderic’s opinion for the same reason Hydra Head leaves the Drowningman entry on their website almost entirely to him: Busy Signal, and Drowningman in general, is “best described and contextualized by one of their peers”:
“Remember, this was year 1998 when so many great bands put out incredible releases: CONVERGE - When Forever Comes Crashing, CAVE IN - Until Your Heart Stops, BOTCH - American Nervoso, ISIS - Mosquito Control EP, REFUSED - The Shape of Punk to Come, etc. Those were exciting times for the realm of heavy underground music. A seemingly lesser-known act, DROWNINGMAN, came up that year with a moniker and a sound that brought to mind the pioneers of chaotic metallic hardcore, DEADGUY. Rising from Burlington, Vermont, they rocked in an even tighter fashion and would play even further the superlong-witty-song-title game. The album itself was presented under a semi passable (but ultimately memorable) B-movie title, Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline.
That however wasn't the most important facet of the album- the music was: DROWNINGMAN fired on all cylinders, fusing hardcore-punk, noisecore, math-rock, metal and even indie-pop. Yes, they were the only band that could jump from a shredding metalcore part to a pretty singy-songy chorus without sounding like a preppy emo band - long before this became a fashionable (and marketable) formula. With a singer as capable as Simon Brody, you'd wonder why they wouldn't give it a shot. It worked. Most of all, the guitarists had so many great riffs under their belts - viciously discordant, blatantly rocking, anthemic, you name it, and to top it off a drummer that possessed enough versatility and musicality in his grooves to make it flow effortlessly.
Listen to opener ‘Condoning The Use Of Inhalants’: it clocks in at just under three minutes, but by the time it reaches the 2:30 mark, the band has already gone through five different riffs at least, and just as many tempo shifts, seamlessly. Drowningman were a lesson in songcraft just as much as they were in extremity. A lesson those lucky enough to cross their path undoubtedly retained.”
I swear to God I hear your voice outside of the window.
But Busy Signal isn’t going to sound like the most original take on metalcore to most listeners right away. It might even sound a little standard-issue compared to some of the other new classics in the American Metalcore Project - it’s not as dense as Kiss It Goodbye, not as intricate as Buried Inside, or as bonkers as The End. But as always, context is key. While metalcore fans will pick up on the hard verse/melodic chorus structures of these eight tracks, it’s important that we also recognize that, as Roderic notes, Busy Signal precedes the popularization of these tropes by at least a couple of years. Drowningman also have an odd ear for both halves of the metalcore dichotomy. This becomes more and more apparent with repeat listens. Their core sound tends to oscillate between hardcore stomp, shreddy technicality, and indie-alternative melodicism - not an easy mix to pull off, but they make it seem effortless. In that same PRP interview, Brody cite Deadguy, Threadbare, Acme, and Shotmaker as “huge influences” on Drowningman in their early years. You don’t have to squint to see strains each of those bands in the makeup of Busy Signal. In fact, in the band’s own words:
“Conceptually, what we wanted to do was take a few things, mix them together and see what works,” says Brody….“We’d hear something and really like it, but often think the band could have gone in a different direction. So what if we took what a band like, say, [New Jersey metalcore band] Deadguy did and took it in that different direction ourselves?”
“We were trying to interpret the music of bands who were doing these fringe things, and doing them very well,” adds Leonard. “But we were trying to do it without copying them.”
Give them credit: it’s much harder to detect what sort of influence “Sunny Day Real Estate, Radiohead, The Sea and Cake, American Football, Joan of Arc, and Trans Am”2 had on Drowningman, at least at this stage, and with this iteration of the band. I say “this iteration” because, with their revolving door of musicians, each album is essentially the product of a “new” Drowningman anchored down by Brody’s distinctive voice. Some spacey textures manage to bloom on later efforts, but if you stare long enough, you’ll see them simmering just beneath the surface of Busy Signal, too: the band’s ear for melody is, again, more alternative than pop, and they tend to develop songs through Deadguy-ish riff-o-ramas, giving Busy Signal an occasionally jagged, frequently explosive, always-exciting topography that only they can really lay claim to.
I’m already low.
Give them credit, also, for channeling the agile bludgeoning of their hardcore influences without resorting to excessive brutality - you could almost accuse Drowningman of being fun, with their witty song titles and technical flair, but I point the finger a little more confidently at Killswitch Engage when it comes time to name the first band to make metalcore truly palatable. Even when they assume a proto-partycore slant (the swingy groove of the title track, the hellraising riffs of “Supermarket Riot”), Drowningman are just a little too dark and sardonic to support that kind of accusation. They’re too unstable.
Can you hear me? There's something wrong with me.
But that was what made their live show. Drowningman’s onstage reputation is perhaps the most consistent thing about them outside of Brody, and with good reason. For the sake of corollary, let’s imagine ourselves at an Every Time I Die gig. If you’ve had the fortune to see them, you know they’re loud, silly, booze-and-bros affairs. If you haven’t, do it: they throw parties, not concerts. Since it’s pretty challenging to catch a Drowningman set these days, we have to scavenge for what’s left of them on YouTube or buried in old interviews to root out the differences, but they become pretty damn apparent not too long into the investigation. “I’ve been known to talk some shit,” Brody once said of his live persona, but it goes deeper, and gets weirder, than that. In an interview with Jackson Ellis of Noisecreep, amid talk of a possible Busy Signal re-release, Brody and the interviewer discuss a pretty apt example of Drowningman’s heyday:
Ellis: I recent[sic] caught up with friend, and he was telling me about seeing you guys in Indiana and told me about you yelling at some heckler or something. And you guys wouldn’t play another song until the heckler licked the bass player’s chest. Is this a real story or one of those show fables that developed over time?
Brody: No, that was real. I don’t know what used to come over me. That was a more mild account. I remember playing in Buffalo once and the police came down with the intention of arresting me if I “did what I had done the time before.” I don’t quite recall it, but apparently a traumatized kid reported it to their mom, who in turn talked to the cops.
“I still have the scars on the bridge of my nose, forehead and some nice ones in hiding out in my hairline to remind me of my shitty behavior,” Brody concludes, saying all that really needs to be said on that.
Your signal can't reach me, your station can't feel me.
Despite teetering on the brink of collapse for most of their career (and occasionally falling right into it!), Drowningman was consistently able to deliver the goods like no other act in the scene. The importance of Drowningman’s debut album to the American Metalcore Project, then, is actually secondary to the importance of the band itself. Rather than positioning Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline as an influential album on its own, it would be more practical to take it for what it truly is: a crash-course introduction to one of the most fascinating and overlooked bands in the genre. It’s a little rough around the edges, sometimes a little obvious in its approach, but it’s the first and most straightforward example of the attitude and techniques that would come to define Drowningman. In the context of their discography, it gives us a starting point from which to view their evolution into something weird and unique within the rigid confines of metalcore - an evolution catalyzed just as much by their willingness to incorporate influences from way outside the norm as by their collective unwillingness to keep their musical heroes on too tall a pedestal, or to even acknowledge the rigidity of those confines. That’s the kind of indifference that any band can learn from.
Hand me the knife, hand of God, hand me the knife.
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Wherein Brian hilariously overanalyzes a subgenre of metal!