Oakland’s stalwarts of sludge-tinted noise rock, Kowloon Walled City have been quiet for nearly six years. Their last release 2015’s Grievances, traveled the gamut from post-hardcore leanings to full-blown sludge metal heaviness, featuring more incendiary guitar work and a greater focus on space throughout its seven tracks. KWC’s re-entry in 2021 is just as dark and anguished as before; Piecework sees the band at its most mournful, trying to make sense of grief and the world as it stands.
Piecework is a work of ambition, fixating on crunchy chords, looming menace, distended bass notes and a few layers of grime. Every vibrating string can be heard, every deadening percussion thud, and frontman Scott Evans’ signature shouted vocals. It’s a grim affair; the album has a chalk outline surrounding it. The title track has a choking quality, tinted with a spiraling darkness, reveling in production that’s crisp while concussive instrumentation carries the momentum of the track. There’s no denying the icy chill that runs through the album, but it works as well as it does because of how utterly human it all is.
Where other bands might feel obligated to provide a sonic mechanism or even a complete track to form some needed respite, this outing sees KWC pile it on. “Utopian” almost achieves this, but it’s a form of aural smoke and mirrors—as soon as there’s room to breathe, it’s taken away, only adding more weight like the fabled Giles Corey. It’s in this torrent that KWC reaches for explosive epiphanies, mostly because there are no distractions, no ambient inclusions, no walls of unassailable reverb, no dawdling bridges. There’s a leanness, a focus throughout that only enhances instead of subtracting.
It’s not that there’s no restraint; “restraining ourselves into oblivion” was a phrase thrown about in the press materials surrounding the album. In the twilight of tracks like “Oxygen Tent” there’s a push and pull that while at first feels like it might seek to dispel the prior intensity, features a breakdown that is speaker shattering. Between smoky chord progressions on “You Had a Plan” which provide more of a slow down, the dramatic pull and inevitable climactic barrage that hails the end of the song make it all worthwhile.
Evans’ shouting on the track “Splicing” of the simple phrase, “we cut ourselves apart/we’re all tired,” seems to be a perfect summation of the album. Coming apart at every end, and feeling a sense of exhaustion through turmoil that renders the soul in destitute. Sure, there’s a well of anger to plumb, inexhaustible given our surroundings, but a distinct sadness seems pervasive.
Piecework isn’t a reinvention for Kowloon Walled City. It doesn’t need to be, instead leaning into subtle refinements and fixations that have tremendous payouts for established listeners and newcomers alike. It’s a snarling, grizzly work that finds every metallic ring of its detuned guitars reverberating with greater impact. This is Kowloon Walled City at their best, not because it’s precisely heavy, but because its heaviness has enough mobility to communicate something vulnerable, something true, something as painful and universal as grief.