Review: Exhalants – “Atonement”

This year has become a Groundhogs Day of Nightly News shitshows in much of the Western world, but 2020 (we’ll give it this much) has been at least a little rewarding for fans of good ol’ aggressive noise-rock. Now, just a couple months after Pittsburgh’s TRVSS offered up a venomous sophomore LP, Exhalants is doing the same thing – and, like TRVSS, the new record, titled Atonement, does best in the areas where the trio flashes a knowing dynamism, cranks up the dissent or pauses to stop on a dime between pummelings.

“Richard” – possibly referencing Shakespeare’s #3, or maybe just a guy being a Dick – is emblematic of a new kind of approach for Exhalants, a slight differing of strut or mannerism from the band’s great, if sometimes too mid-fi self-titled debut. Though the track begins bombastically, the band quickly recoils into a kind of off-kilter mutant lurch, all palm-muted guitar measures and punctuating bass grinds a la the New York noise scene of the ‘90s. Excellent and addictive stuff. Atonement also closes with a bizarrely elegiac opus, complete with genuinely somber – and, note to self: undistorted! – guitar and bass motifs, even a touch of tragic, faux-wailing horns in the background. To hear something nearly 10 minutes long and this funereal from a band that does such a good job at creating a racket in the blink of an eye gives you a good idea about how much of a limb Exhalants is stepping out on with the new LP. In the end, the listener wins.

The record is hardly a study entirely in restraint. Though it has some beautiful pseudo-aluminum guitars, “Crucifix” is a dirgy, pissed-off number, something, as the band’s followers implicitly understand, part of the way between Unsane and Unwound – in more than one meaning of the word. The NYC industrial grind is wonderfully ever-present on “Crucifix,” whose choral guitar explodes with shrapnel of feedback, and album opener “The Thorn You Carry in Yr Side,” where guitar lines and smashing percussion give way to blasts of bass, the four strings thrummed loudly inside of plucked or picked. (The guttural “End Scenes” offers up similar treats.) Even “The Thorn You Carry in Yr Side,” though, is far from a one-trick pony; there are wonderfully placed bridges, subdued ones even, that give pauses of breath between the bag full of hammers coming repeatedly crashing down on the listener’s head.

Sometimes, the band foregoes the dynamism a bit and relies of the velocity or the venom of its debut. Noise-rock fans will, no doubt, devour this stuff, but discerning ears will have trouble sorting out refrain from refrain in, say, “Bang” or “Passing Perceptions.” It’s not that they’re bad songs or duds or lackluster moments. But, when other tracks, like “Richard,” have some incredible attention to tone and sonic detail, the tracks where these guys rely on the spat-out delivery to sell the goods feel a bit monochromatic.

All in all, Atonement, with its dense themes of reflection marked with psychological nastiness, will check off plenty of boxes for the noise-rock set. Though it’s hard to constantly remind yourself that these guys are from Austin, Texas and not ‘90s New York City, the group’s sense of volume and dynamism – these songs, in short, will own your eardrums while the LP spins – make them a distinguished act in a crowded field. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, Sept. 21, 2020

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