Primitive Man’s last offering, 2020’s bleak masterpiece Immersion, writhed with an abominable glee, a grim thesis on existence, career, art, and the world. It felt appropriately timed, given the circumstances of that year, but more importantly it provided a massive sense of catharsis. Not because of the deluge of negative events that coincided with its own release, but rather because it ushered forth a pact of understanding between band and listener. Immersion felt like a tarot reading (or ouija board depending on your inclination) that had soured, but spoke an immutable truth that you might have found difficult to grapple with. Insurmountable only continues that dialogue of oppression, excess, and ever-present terror they summoned before. Yet underneath it, something has changed.
As Insurmountable opens, listeners are met with staggered, slicing drums over channels of reverb, mounting to a cataclysm of frontman Ethan Lee McCarthy’s now signature guttural roar on “This Life.” There’s no chance at the band threatening their sonic profile, which has taken so long to develop into a distinct sound. But, through expert production and a careful exploration of space between channels, there’s a concerted effort to push listeners closer to the abyss at the heart of it all. In that space, “This Life” sounds like literal hell, made worse by exactly how well communicated it is. It’s not just existential woe, or purposeless gory metal camp, it channels a relatable terror of our world. The band’s lapses of long walls of static and reverb feel louder than ever, not a single sound could even register as diminutive, everything has a cosmic mass to it, a faultless intensity and scope.
Subverting this all is a stealthy groove that emerges halfway through, establishing every tremor emitted from guitar and bass alike as a syncopated terror. A partnership that breaks between channels towards the end, applying a prestige like prog sensibility. This bombast serves as an underpinning for a careful study in ambience, “Boiled,” in which a well of murmuring amps flood a recess of negative space, whinnying and crackling, waiting to be filled. It is the sound of anxiety. This undulating ambience, inclined to disturb, and provoke, is a perfect transition. Its haunting direction is not an attempt to defuse, it is purposeful, to immerse the listener in the world of Primitive Man. A doomed and dying place, the place we inhabit and call home.
This enduring commitment to challenging listeners through sheer overwhelming aesthetic capacity is still on full display throughout. A more sophisticated development occurring on “Cage Intimacy,” the lead single, which heralds a transition in songcraft from the band, relying instead on a guitar harmony that doesn’t fall into their tried reverb space. Instead, they cast notes that ascend and descend with rapid fluidity, and though these chords don’t feel as deep, while they’re still crushing, there’s a nimbleness here, a harmony that provokes and teeters above an abyss. McCarthy’s vocals feel more dynamic than ever, reaching above his register to illicit snarling growls, spittle-laced, full throated yells. These contortions are vital, leading to an all out chaotic assault, blast beats running amok, before finding that line of meditative brutality. As the track winds down into a long submission, it comes back even heavier than before, every passage a crumbling pillar from before rebuilt into the main harmonic signature. A denouement that transcends everything that comes before with ease, simply because of how unfettered and unchained it is.
Fittingly, the experience comes to an end with “Quiet” a Smashing Pumpkins cover that channels the same energy the band poured into their cover of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf,” showing just how effective McCarthy and crew are at translating and transporting other bands’ material into their abyssal realm. Aesthetic changes aside, every core sonic motif of the original Smashing Pumpkins song is maintained with an efficient fidelity, shirking a stylistic experiment to stand defiantly in what they do best.
Insurmountable is more than just a sundering wave of reverb. This is a meditation on doom. On nothingness, on excess, on misanthropy. Its structures allow for massive soundscapes and sharp, minimalist lyrics. Its compositions are mechanisms made to function as architectural testaments to the grimmest of realities we inhabit. One may not find catharsis here in the same way that Immersion might have provided it, but rather appreciation for a devout honesty, an EP that remains unmoored in the face of paltry distractions and wistful idealisms. Nothing is romanticized here, nor should there be. But what one gleans from this can be transformative, challenging and disrupting as much as it can build on the rubble of our reality.
Label: Closed Casket Activities