Album Review: Closer – Within One Stem

[Lauren Records; 2021]

Ryann Slauson has a voice that cuts like a white hot, serrated knife. It’s a panic attack rendered in the medium of air pushed desperately and violently over vocal cords; a nerve-shredding alarm call for the soul. It’s also likely to be the make-or-break element for listeners new to the formerly Brooklyn-based, now scattered-across-the-states, emotive and heavy post-hardcore band, Closer

With their preternaturally promising 2018 debut, All This Will Be, Ryann Slauson (vocalist/drummer), Matthew van Asselt (guitarist) and Griffin Irvine (bassist) aligned themselves, in genre terms, with ‘skramz’, a word originally devised as a joke on an emo forum to differentiate ‘true screamo’, i.e. influenced by classic acts like Orchid, City of Caterpillar, or pg.99, or 2010s revivalists like La Dispute, Touché Amoré or Loma Prieta, rather than what screamo had unfortunately become in the mid 2000s; you know, major-label-backed ‘MTV screamo’ with its jet black hair dye and skinny jeans. Of course, in some circles any music with screaming vocals is screamo (lazy music journalists – you know who you are). All of that is to say that 1) Slauson’s vocals, as divisive as they may be, aren’t that unusual when you consider the genre Closer are operating within, and 2) genres are fucking stupid.

With that out of the way, let’s never speak of skramz or screamo or sass ever again. Back to the review.

All This Will Be established Closer as a band that was primarily focused on appealing to your emotions. Your screamotions, if you will (last time). They played loosely and passionately, with a let’s-record-this-quickly-before-it-goes-stale production aesthetic. Technical chops were never the point. Often, it felt like the instruments were trying to outpace each other, clamouring tooth and nail to extract every dripping ounce of feeling out of vibrating strings, pounded skins and crashing metal.

On Within One Stem, these three musicians sound considerably more locked-in, and their songwriting has gotten tighter. Closer essentially declare open season on genre, cherrypicking stylistic touchstones from post-rock, hardcore, black metal, alternative rock and both first wave and revivalist screamo, while also absorbing and transmuting the influence of contemporaries like Gouge Away and Birds in Row, among others. This is how you get songs like opener, “Ruins in Reverse”, which at one point features a call and response between Dutch-angled panic chords and Explosions in the Sky-esque twinkling guitars.

This unpredictability remains throughout, as Closer’s songs switch up multiple times despite their brief runtimes. “New Refused”, for example, makes four or five whiplash-inducing turns, shifting gears ever so briefly into a riff-monster that sounds like Tom Morello and Zach de la Rocha have burst into the studio to deliver the evocative refrain of “we send the dead to the orchard” over a page cribbed from the Evil Empire songbook. Somehow, that same song evolves to end on a beautifully elegiac repeated mantra, delivered atop gorgeous instrumentation, that seems particularly apt for our COVID times: “And we don’t change / And all the stories the same […] A house, A hospital / It’s all the same.” Closer manage to make it sound seamlessly organic; inevitable, even.

On “Hardly Art”, the highlight of their debut album, Slauson sang of their ultimate desire: “all I want is something familiar.” Closer’s sophomore album could have delivered precisely that: more of what we’re already familiar with. And yes, Slauson’s vocal stylings mean you’d be hard pressed to confuse this with anyone else; furthermore, the overarching feelings stirred up by Closer’s music remain much the same. However, the band mixes up the formula enough to avoid it getting stale. They spend more time in gentler waters, with a focus on melody over bludgeoning impact in extended sections of “Divide” and album centerpiece “Angry Flood”.

Closer do a lot with a limited sonic palette. Despite being rendered in the age-old musical language of the traditional rock trio, Within One Stem is a tangle of musical knots that’s a delight to unpick; and in its density it perfectly reflects Ryann Slauson’s lyrical mode. When they aren’t multi-tasking as drummer-vocalist in a hardcore band or working in a grocery store, Slauson is a poet and visual artist, with a keen interest in science-fiction, politics, queer identity, art theory and relentlessly brutal self-effacement. This results in unusually accomplished lyrics: a dense tapestry of intertextual allusions, to both ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, thereby blurring the lines between sources as disparate as Proust’s Swann’s Way, The Matrix screenplay, and The Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. The promotional materials for the album even included annotated lyrics that explained many of the homages, motivations and borrowed phrases, thereby making the lives of Genius users everywhere infinitely more straightforward, and, to be honest, without the annotations a lot is extremely hard to follow given the enigmatically obtuse poetry that is Slauson’s calling card – but they’re worth the time investment to dig into.

The words throughout Within One Stem are shot through with Slauson’s unique perspective upon their life and loves, their expectations and disappointments, and their experience of coming to a realisation about their non-binary, queer identity. This is most poignantly and painfully elucidated in a cathartic, extended verbal barrage on “Angry Flood”. By no means does this all amount to a lot of solipsistic navel-gazing; Slauson is passionately invested in the world around them, and grapples with the politics of the past and present. “Pawning a Laugh” details the push and pull between the capitalist machine and striking workers at a GM plant in the 1930s, concluding that it’s “a template bound to burst.”

What sets Within One Stem apart is that equal weight is given to making the instrumentals and the sentiment behind the words land with comparative force. Closing track, “937” (a reference to the corporate mandate in Alien that the Xenomorph be preserved at all costs – a sci-fi spin on the oppressive power dynamics outlined previously on “Pawning a Laugh”) climaxes with a line as heavy as any down-tuned riff: “what good does it do you, to believe in good things?” Given the year we’ve all just had, you’d be excused for sitting back in your chair now and staring into the middle distance, as an existential crisis rises in the pit of your stomach.

As emotionally stark and bleak as Within One Stem can get, there’s a palpable, moving sense of empathy and humanity across the record, and the band’s passionate playing is testament to their conviction, their belief in what they are doing, regardless of the challenges that accompany dogged perseverance. Closer are a good thing, and I, for one, believe in them. The album ends on a line that recalls that earlier mantra from “Hardly Art”, just boiled down to a fundamental reduction: “I need some meaning I can memorise.” For those who discover it, Within One Stem will go some way towards addressing that need.