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The High Cost of Playing God: Austin Band Makes Huge Impression on Debut EP

If ever there was a band in hardcore that’s impossible to copy, it’s early Converge. I know that they themselves were taking heavily from a mixture of Rorschach, Slayer, Heroin, and a deluge of other influences, but the amalgamation of all of those things resulted in a volatile chemical rush of bilious, fractured heavy music that hasn’t been approximated before or since. After Jane Doe, they switched lanes into something a bit more progressive and focused—still inimitable and incredible, but without the raw-nerved, bleeding edge of their first few records.

Many bands would take from the classic Converge catalog—Halo in a Haystack, Petitioning the Empty Sky, When Forever Comes Crashing—but none could conjure up the same energy and aesthetic as them, which is why Converge’s early material stands as some of my favorite hardcore ever committed to tape.

Imagine my surprise, then, living in Austin, and coming across a local band calling itself The High Cost of Playing God, after one of the standout tracks from When Forever Comes Crashing. My expectations were high going in, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the band play a short, sweet set of cacophonous and tightly-wound metallic hardcore, and managing to evoke the spirit of early Converge without becoming a wholesale copycat act.

The touchstones are all there—that uniquely bright-yet-crushing guitar tone, the structural adventurousness, the earnestly focused performances—but there are some other welcome influences swirling about: the disciplined, technical edge of Miss Machine-era Dillinger Escape Plan; the sturdy, concrete-filled fight riffs of On Broken Wings; the loping, infectious grooves and subtle melody of early Every Time I Die.

Setting High Cost apart from their influences are a dynamic sense of guitar interplay between Tim Hayward and Kyle Anderson, and Hayward’s vocals, a more traditionally hardcore yawp with a desperate, seething edge that serves to both ground the band amid the instrumental chaos and to provide an element of relatable pathos for the listener.

Austin’s hardcore scene, aside from Wings of Kynareth (the artists formerly known as xGnapenstobx), is chiefly dominated by a more punky and light-hearted approach that I personally am not necessarily always keen on. Given that, it was a welcome sea change to experience something more dark and tortured, and High Cost’s music itself is phenomenal—unconventional riffs abound on their material, accented by the schizophrenic-yet-mannered drumming technique of Forrest Sims, and their heaviness goes hand-in-hand with their gnarled and circuitous song construction.

I was pretty ecstatic when I got the chance to listen to High Cost’s debut EP, a self-titled endeavor that more than lives up to the band’s intimate and blisteringly no-bullshit live show, courtesy of the crisp and caustic production from Kieran Krebs of Overcast Recordings.

The High Cost of Playing God is a pretty brief affair—four tracks in maybe nine minutes—but it makes every second count, rarely stopping for breath or losing momentum from the shrill, head-spinning opening riff of “Judge. Jury. Executioner.” on. The closest thing we get to a reprieve is a bubbly bass fill from Logan Burroughs (who also provides backup vocals) during the overbearing closer, “Release,” and even that feels less like a break than it does like a sparse and claustrophobic teaser for the intensity of the rest of the song.

The EP’s brevity makes every track here feel like a standout, although the bite-sized ripper “Better Method” might take home that prize, being even shorter than the average song on this EP and still finding time for a skull-splitting breakdown during its climax. I’m also a huge fan of the second track, “Sanity,” which is probably the most structurally restless of the songs here, moving through multiple sections with a logic, ease, and flow that eludes most bands this young, and also incorporates a strong-yet-reserved melody that gives the whole affair a sense of additional weight and vague unease.

The lyrics mirror the contorted and uncomfortable music, dealing primarily with the mental health of guitarist, primary vocalist, and lyricist Tim Hayward. “As a whole this record was written out of a place of deep frustration and insecurity. I remember going into our practice space by myself late at night, pissed off, and ultimately very depressed. I wrote and rewrote parts over and over until I finally had songs that felt indicative of my headspace,” Hayward tells me. “Most of our songs are about suicide,” he adds.

While two of the songs here address these concerns in an extremely direct and intimately personal manner—“Better Method” is about the suicidal ideation itself, while “Sanity”’s lyrics and song structure mirror each other, mimicking the exhausting monotony of life with depression under late-stage capitalism—the song “Judge. Jury. Executioner.” zooms out from the micro to the macro, taking aim at the age-old punk topic of shitty cops and examining it from a slightly more Marxist perspective. “Those actions [of injustice and brutality] are not reprimanded or even taken seriously by the public and the class divide this causes is deeply frustrating to say the least,” says Hayward.

Photo: Jack Parker

While the outlook might seem bleak on the surface—Hayward summarizes “Sanity” as the realization that “nothing you’re doing fucking matters and it makes you lose your mind at the insignificance of everything”—ultimately, the purpose of the High Cost of Playing God, much like their forbears, is an extreme form of emotional bloodletting and self-cleansing, a musical excoriation and binge/purge of bad habits and worse headspaces that leaves everyone feeling exhausted but better afterwards, kind of like a violent sobbing session.

If the insularity and depressive, self-immolating tendencies of Hayward’s lyrics are concerning, he notes that “I know suicide is something I would never act on, as I have wonderful friends and family as a support system, but getting it out through this medium is very cathartic and gives me a perfect outlet for these thoughts and grievances.”

The High Cost of Playing God are one of the most exciting young bands coming out of the Texas hardcore scene right now, and seeing how good this debut EP is only makes me excited about the potential excellence of their later material.

It would be a huge fucking mistake to write them off as a Converge rip-off; High Cost are smart and razor-sharp songwriters in their own right, and the power and conviction with which they blaze through their material, much like their songwriting, will keep you on your toes and breathless to see what they try next.

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