hat’s Michigan like? For starters, it’s the first post-industrial apocalypse to be left behind in America’s transition to a service economy. It’s a dreary, wet, flat bog land crusted with rust. Optimistic citizens live with a perpetual grimace on their face, awaiting the next brutal economic blow. Most trudge off to work under a mottled gray sky, bitterly dreaming about the security and nobility of the union paychecks now sadly shrunken. The disillusioned haunt train yards and glass-strewn parking lots, loitering sullenly in denim jackets, faces lurid underneath the flicker of a neon light about to die out. And disturbed youth lurk in basements, blaring Sabbath at a volume intended to hurt Mom and Dad’s ears.
If you, fine reader, are a proud Michigan resident, and the above description offends you, keep in mind my impressions are culled primarily from a few dysfunctional relatives and Ann Arbor’s Hanson Records. Hanson’s noise comes from broken machines otherwise rendered useless. It comes from the collective rage of the depressed and emotionally deprived. And it comes from the heads of those basement youths who had to turn to something else when the Ultimate Sabbath Mixtape wore out. Oh yeah—and it comes from lovely Ann Arbor, a chill college town that rivals any other.
Hive Mind fits right in with Hanson’s aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic—we can argue about that later), though their sound is more polished and subdued than any Wolf Eyes release would dare to be. Death Tone sits uneasily on the boundary between drone, noise, and dark ambient. Indeed, uneasy is possibly the best word to describe the lone 43-minute piece on the disc. From the first quiet heartbeats to the final distorted air-conditioner rumble, Death Tone places the listener in an awkward position. Layers of analog pain scream and rip your collar should you ever let the album fade into the background, yet long sections of rolling darkness and ultra-bass throbs lure you into a narcotic haze. Death Tone allows no comfort zone and no easy classification.
When listening to Death Tone, I feel like captured prey. The slow-growing low-end roars of sound contain the confident aggression of a predator that knows it’ll eat good tonight. Death Tone takes its time to kill. It paws at you and squeals sine-wave sharp in your ear just to watch you squirm.
But Death Tone’s strengths are also its weaknesses. I commend Hive Mind’s refusal to commit to a genre, but to straddle the genre line, they must mash together the slow-burn dynamics of dark ambient and drone with the instant violence of noise. To clarify, consider a piercing Merzbowian shriek. The sound is unsettling when it is first heard, and it is harrowing after two minutes. But unless you are a serious and committed noise fan, it is merely annoying after eight. Similarly the epic 43-minute length of the track is ponderous. The track simply doesn’t pay off unless you listen all the way through—not enough is happening at any one time to justify hearing this in bursts. But those 43 minutes contain at least fifteen where the listener suspects that something more could be going on, if only Hive Mind weren’t so enamored with repeating a particular cycle of curdling squeals and shudders for minutes on end.
Death Tone demands a lot from a listener, and if you’re willing to provide your time and attention (and take some ear pain along the way), the album succeeds. So if you dare, prepare yourself for dread, for pain, and for the sinking feeling that death lurks behind every cloud of tortured sound. Prepare yourself for Michigan.