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Cruelty of the Heavens Is a Band That Deserves a Wider Audience (REVIEW/INTERVIEW)

Photo: Sydney Carlson

Cruelty of the Heaven’s Nothin’s Cool saw its quiet release on Valentine’s Day via My Name Is Judas Records. The name of their label home is strangely apt, as the uncategorizable Memphis band is as likely to bash out straightforward rock a la the Blue Album as they are sprawling lovelorn alternative anthems. Off the back of 2016’s Grow Up and See, and the following year’s Somewhere Between Paranoia and Depression, the trio returns with their latest.

The recently dropped EP is a wildly varied affair, the half dozen songs pulling from grunge, shoegaze, post-metal, radio rock, and all things alternative only to mangle it wildly into something all their own. 

Nothin’s Cool is another carefully chosen namesake, as their aesthetic is decidedly unafraid to pull from any corner, genre gatekeepers and snobs be damned. Those conscious of “cool” shouldn’t come to the party, as their Antenna-era Cave In shindig also handed invites to post-grunge greats Sponge, and anyone else they please. Cruelty of the Heavens, however anthemic-minded and catchy, have a DIY throughline that runs through their collective marrow, having spent at the helm of various hardcore bands like Chaos Order and The Westbound.

Fittingly for a band with hardcore roots, there are bits that recall Into Another, Supertouch, Quicksand, and Handsome. Bolstered by a decidedly current feel, they’d just as likely feel at home with neo-grunge peddlers Superheaven, Sainthood Reps, Teenage Wrist, Microwave, and Narrow Head.

For an EP that doesn’t quite clock 25 minutes, the band exhibits endless patience, going long where others might sprint. Songs expand and contract while verses and pre-choruses are every bit as memorable as the choruses themselves. Opener “Angeldust” shows its cards early, the anthemic chorus fast on the heels of crisp and frenetic bass and propulsive drumming.

As they’re wont to do all over this batch of painstakingly crafted songs, they segue from soaring to gloomy. Like the sneakiest and best pop-leaning heavy rock acts, ahem Pixies, the darkness always lies in wait. Lyrically, it seems to posit that we’re all the prodigal ones, the reluctant return and hubris reflected with dour, downtuned rock. This is music that’ve felt at home on mid to late '90s college radio, feeling as much like Katatonia as it does Our Lady Peace or Renee Heartfelt. 

“Found Missing” is another immediate and welcoming number with impossibly rich vocals. Oftentimes based around the vocal melody and hook, the guitars weave between the expertly places call and response of “I remember the taste” as the song rollicks toward its end. The bass swells and builds subtly, feeling like alternate universe tourmates of Shiner, Hum, and Failure.

Elsewhere, they employ this with equally dazzling results. “Darling Demon” starts patiently in the pocket, all snarling bass and contemplative pace before exploding into my favorite chorus of the EP. 

The band’s most easily identified talents are all over midpoint “Anna Graham.” The cleverly monikered third track finds the band on moody form, riding on Disintegration-era Cure bass worship. Again, they feature a certified earworm that dares to conjure the criminally underrated melodrama of HIM. The close of the song reaches a desperate climax with little more than an aching vocal. The fade out washes the song away like the recession of waves and, apropos of album sequence, following track Poltergeist” fades in much the same way.

Lyrically, the haunted jilt of a jealous lover is the thematic ghost hovering heavily over the melancholic proceedings. They again manage to incorporate disparate elements, marrying gauzy post-hardcore to heavy contemporary alt-rock akin to O’Brother, The Dear Hunter, or Thrice.

The title track plays a plaintive and sweeping acoustic ballad. Though straightforward and evocative, there’s still a mournful air that keeps it more Jar of Flies than the glut of clap-folk bands from the early 2010s. 

Cruelty of the Heavens deserves a wider audience and, as seeing we’ve all got the time, I forced the issue. They kindly allowed me to pepper them with questions on everything from Brad Boatright to the best Neurosis album. 

For the uninitiated, give us a brief roll call and band introduction.
 
Neal Bledsoe: Vocals, Guitars.
Jared Filsinger: Bass/Keyboards/Vocals. 
Samuel Davidson: Drums. 
 
How’d the latest batch of songs come together? It’s an impressive and cohesive collection. 
 
Neal: Jared or I may bring an idea to the rehearsal room. Something simple as a chord progression and or maybe a complete part, such as a potential verse or something of that nature.  We’ll roll from there. It’s that simple. For all of our music, honestly. We’re not that band that’s like “lets sneak this in for this crowd or this genre of music” OR “hey, this is what’s “BIG” right now, let’s do something like that” We simply do not care about any of that.

What comes out is what comes out. As selfish as it sounds, we write these songs for ourselves, based on our own personal experiences. Don’t get me wrong, We are always extremely flattered when other people connect with our band and or love the songs as much as we do, but we write things we want to hear.  

Jared: Neal and I both had some songs and riffs we had written and we just did what we always do, which is to get the 3 of us into a room together and hash them out. Some songs were brand new and some were ones we had sat on for a while. I actually had most of my parts to “Darling Demon” written over a decade ago. I just hadn’t been in the right band for it until now. 
 
Samuel: Thank you! Neal and Jared steal my ideas. I recorded those riffs years ago! I’m kidding, they are both really great song writers and they brought in riffs/ideas into rehearsal and the songs started coming together organically between the 3 of us. We don’t have any restrictions in this band, we just write whatever we are feeling. 

Photo: Sydney Carlson

Aside from coming from playing in what’re essentially hardcore bands (Chaos Order, The Westbound), what was the transition into Cruelty of the Heavens like?
 
Neal: It was actually 100% natural feeling. Us 3 have never been the type to force anything. We don’t need to impress anyone but ourselves at the end of the day. We didn’t sit down and have a conversation about starting an alternative band [laughs]. We didn’t know that we were even capable of a band like Cruelty of the Heavens. During some of the first jam sessions, it felt like something we’d been doing for years. It felt natural right away. Me, Jared and Sam wrote that first record, Grow Up and See in (2) weeks [laughs].

Truthfully, if we were forcing anything about Cruelty of the Heavens, people could see it and feel it, you know? We’ve walways loved this type of music. Regardless of what band we were in together. We would be on tour w/ metal bands, listening to Superdrag’s (Head Trip in Every Key) album on loop!  
 
Jared: It was super natural. We had always been into post punk and shoegaze bands, and Neal and I had written some music along those lines for fun that we home demoed but never released. I for one was stuck for a while in the "it must be fast and heavy" mentality. Once Chaos Order ended it felt like the right time to do something different, so we went with it. 
 
Samuel: Completely natural. We’ve been friends for many years playing heavy music together but I think the older you get, you wanna explore different avenues in whatever you are passionate about. When our old band ended, it allowed us to do that. It wasn’t forced, it fell into place when it was the right time.

I hear everything from power-pop, heavy alternative, shoegaze, post-hardcore, prog to grunge and radio-ready rock. How in the world did you manage to piece together those influences so seamlessly? With a sound as varied as yours, is it difficult to find the right rooms/scenes to play in?
 
Neal: All of it stems from our vast taste in music. Everything from The Smiths, Stone Roses, Cold Cave, Neurosis, Satyricon, Alice in Chains, Sam Cooke, New Order, Slowdive, Superdrag, Echo and th Bunnymen, The Replacements, The Doors, Swervedriver, The Cure, Type O Negative etc, etc.  WAY too many to list (Laughs). We can’t get what we need from any one type of music and or one band, you know?  We are extremely grateful to these bands and influences. They’ve continued to help shape Cruelty Of The Heavens and us as musicians in general.
 
Jared: It pieces together mainly because most of our songs are written as a team between Neal and I. He brings his shoegaze influences and I bring my post punk influences and Sam brings his eclectic character style of drumming and it blends into Us. Truth is we dont try too hard to make it work as a unique sound, we just go on feel and so far we seem to operate on the same wave length.

It is somewhat challenging to find the right scene. Most of our friends and contacts are in the hardcore or metal scene, so we are just now branching out to more similar sounding bands. 

Photo: Sydney Carlson

The sound on the album is huge. I’m always shocked by the wide array of things Brad Boatright of Audiosiege has his hands on. How’s it been working with him?
 
Neal: DUDE, Brad is involved in a vast amount of music! We got to know Brads work during the recording of Chaos Order (Vultures) record. That was 2014? We’ve never looked back. As far as the Cruelty album sounding huge? That comes from David Cowell and Brad Boatright combined. Dave being the mad man he is in the studio mixed w/ the freak of nature that Brad is, has created an incredible duo. Brad Boatright has always, for us, been an incredible addition to the production of the band. Brad basically nails the master on the first pass. He’s always a pleasure to work with.
 
You’ve touched on inspirations and sonic touchstones before, but your visual aesthetic is consistent and engaging. The cover art for each release has featured a flower and the newest one feels so 90’s (which is the highest of compliments). Care to elaborate?
 
Neal: Thanks, man. Sincerely appreciate your words! That’s insanely nice to hear. The first record was a photographer named Jessica Miller. The latest release was a close photographer friend of ours, Maxine O’Neal. Both photographers use actual film to shoot with, which we love, you know? I personally enjoy practical artwork vs a ton of computer generated things. Seems like it holds up better over time as well. We just go with what’s in our guts on these things, man.

It’s not crazy thought out and or tons of time thinking “what can we do?” I’m yawing at just the thought of that boring shit. In all honesty, we’ve been fortunate that these ideas have turned out the way they have [laughs]. Also, It wouldn’t be fair to not mention our team. We can’t do everything ourselves. We have the most incredible team of people behind the scenes of this band. These people are extremely important to the process of how you all receive Cruelty of the Heavens. Kisses. 
 
Song titles are really given the same credence as band names, but you have a couple wickedly clever ones. What’s the deal with “Anna Graham” and “Found Missing?” Also, there’s some strikingly dark content, pairing “Poltergeist” and “Darling Demon.” What’re some non-musical influences for the band (media, literature, books, art, film)?
 
Neal: [Laughs] Yes! There’s definitely some sneaky things on this record! Man, I love reading, drawing, and watching lots of films/documentaries as a B-side to music. Some of my favorite books are written by Napoleon Hill, Anton Lavey, Among tons of others. My book collection isn’t as big as my music collection, but it’s getting there. Dude, I got this body language book recently that’s like a dictionary for repeated body movements? For example, if we’re having conversation and you keep touching your hair or something? I can go home, look up things under the “hair” category and it’ll list several meanings behind it! So, don't fuck up or talk to me in person [laughs].
 
Jared: We all 3 are about 50% inspired by more dark and obscure art and themes (occult/horror/avant garde) and 50% Fun. We try not to take ourselves too seriously. I've written some of my darkest riffs while watching an episode of Seinfeld.  

Tennessee is a state with a wildly varied sound. How does the region inform the sound, ideology, or aesthetic of the band? What’s the local scene like? Any other bands you’d like to big up and give some shine?
 
Neal: We can’t speak on the rest of Tennessee but Memphis is full of extremely talented bands/musicians. I’d love to share some of those artists!  Shards of Humanity, Throne, Process of Suffocation, PEZZ, with Bravado, Skinny Powers, Fear. The Sparrow, What We Do In Secret, Reserving Dirtnaps, Jadewick, Burn the Witch, The Pop Ritual, Jeremy Stanfill, Grace Askew, Tv Yellow, Barron Arrows, Vera, Grave Lurker, Good Bueno, Shed, Chris Turnbow, Holy Gallows, Frenchie, Spaceface, Risky Whispers, Lipstick Stains, is a very minuscule amount of what Memphis has to offer.

I’m a glutton for punishment and lists. As hard as this might be, what’re your Top 5 Records?
 
Neal: This is incredibly tough to say. What’s coming to mind right now are these. In no particular order:

  • Type O Negative, October Rust
  • Alice in Chains, Dirt
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Déjà vu
  • The Lees of Memory, Sisyphus Says
  • Sepultura, Arise

Jared:

  • Misfits, Walk Among Us
  • Scorpion Wind, Heaven Sent
  • The Doors, Strange Days
  • Joy Division, Unknown Pleasures
  • Neurosis, Times of Grace 

Samuel: This isn’t set in stone but I’ll throw some out there.

  • Cold Cave, Cherish the Light Years
  • Nirvana, In Utero
  • Black Flag, Loose Nut
  • Neurosis, Times of Grace
  • Queens of the Stone Age, Like Clockwork

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