Kirin J Callinan lays a lot bare on his debut album. On Embracism he punches out his words, snarling, shouting, and dropping into deadpan at a moment’s notice; schizophrenic you might even say. His imagery and lyrics are just as intense, all about finding that middle ground between love and anger; nature and fashion; masturbation and devotion; fear and glory. If not feral and primal, it’s something human and, at the most thrilling moments, intense. “You’ve gotta love one another,” he shouts on the blistering title track, where he lists rules like a drill sergeant putting rookie soldiers to the test on a muddy field. “Pull the trigger/ Run the race/ Beat the man/ Chase the clock/ Aware to God/ That’s His that was/ Throw the spear/ Take the glory/ Embrace.” It’s the final word which throws everything in the air as it could either be Callinan insisting that we connect with our violent sides and beat our opponent to a bloody pulp (school kids in a playground in this song’s instance) or for us to stand firm and strong, all masculine, and then put your arms around your opponent. Embracism is like an alternative soundtrack to Fight Club.
Of course, there being little to hide is a given when you take in the album artwork. On it, Callinan covers his face with his clawed hand, but instead of trying to hide his features, it looks more like he’s about to rip off the skin. It’s this kind of passion that, when displayed and captured with his voice and music, that the album hits its best moments. “Way II War” battles through rain and fire with an industrial metal punch while Callinan growls distorted in the background in one of the few moments where he takes the focus off the specificity of his lyrics, instead riding the force of the music. “Love Delay” works its way out of Gloss Drop-like itchy guitar riffs before again dropping into a full band onslaught. “You know me, fire” he shouts in the transition between the two song’s two sides, which again is easy to read in multiple ways (like he’s demanding to be shot at, or relating to the destructive power of fire itself).
An album’s worth of this would be tiring if not too intense, but Callinan, as evidenced by the range dabbled in across the Embracism’s ten tracks, is not one to stay stuck to one style. In fact, describing one song as a particular genre is a hard enough task in itself as he doesn’t often rely on traditional instrumentation. Tracks like “Victoria M.” and “Landslide” help ground some of the more emotionally wrought if not emotionally obvious material here, as Callinan often matches his piano-led numbers to some of his best melodies. “Victoria M.” is a flashy synth number that perhaps stands out as the most traditional thing here, with guitars and bass and plenty of shiny strings holding it together while still managing to build to an emotionally wrought climax where Callinan breaks his voice shouting the titular name (or place name) over and over. “Landslide” fares better still, slowing down the pace to something of a dirge, but again still managing to reach a dramatic conclusion and also revealing something that sounds like Callinan’s dystopian view of the world (“The stars are all dirt and God is in the water… and hell is right here on earth”).
This isn’t the extent of Callinan’s slower material, though, as during Embracism’s middle phase he cuts the pace right down, making for questionable sequencing decisions. The “Pagan Poetry”-esque melody of “Scraps” and the string-laden emotional centrepiece “Chardonnay Sean” remove the kinetic energy the album spent the first fifteen minutes building up, and from there it never recovers fully; it’s when aforementioned eighth track “Way II War” shifts into gear that the life only seems to be coming back. “Chardonnay Sean” is still worth a mention, though, if not because it’s the most obviously affecting moment as Callinan pays tribute to a deceased friend who died when they crashed a car, but because it displays Callinan’s ability to work outside of aggressive musical structures. It’s also worth bringing up the production team here, who are a contrasting pair who help Callinan’s two sides shine, if not falling a little short of keeping it entirely personal to him: Kim Moyes (of the Presets) helps the loudness of Embracism hit with a gut punch while Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor helps the nuance come through, if not (and I’m probably making something of an assumption here) helping accentuate (if not add) some extra strings and horns to the mix.
If anything then, Callinan displays a knack for being honest and brutal without sounding like he’s being brutally honest. Like his Facebook posts, a lot of his lyrics sound like they’re written in Caps Lock, but that doesn’t equate to an entry point for the listener. Simply put, Callinan is an odd personality that takes a little getting used to (his pastiche to America on “Come on USA” continues to perplex me with each subsequent listen), but he’s definitely admirable for his energy and intensity, if not an attitude that makes him sound completely indifferent to any rules about how one can or should make music. Embracism is a record that’ll grab you and bring you close, but also one that won’t hesitate to push you away with a gut punch and expect you to take it like a man.