Released: 30th June
Paris: it’s the beautiful city of culture and love, right? But once the dark clouds close in it begins to look grey, downbeat and forsaken.
Picture a miserable, rainy day with a terribly clichéd accordion solemnly playing it’s tale of ennui to indifferent passersby. Then look further into the depths of a cavernous alley way, the ground more covered with cigarette butts and needles than fallen leaves, to a dank dive bar that doesn’t make the money to pay its lease because people only go there for one – final – drink.
No one there talks because they see each other for the detritus of society that they are. When a brutal fight doesn’t break out they all just allow their hatred to swirl within themselves like the ice that instantly melted in their tumblers of tepid spirits.
You have just left Paris, the glamorised icon of culture, fashion and romance and you have now entered Coward’s County, the den of the depraved, the loathsome and the morally destitute.
Shooting Blanks and Pills, as the name might imply, is a tour guide to the bleakest observation of humanity which is aurally akin to a mass expulsion of hatred from within every character in Frank Miller’s archive – just without the production costs of the Sin City or 300 movies. This six track EP of doomy, sludge-infused hardcore is for those basket cases who like their music as raw as their headbang-weary necks, as poor and filthy as their back-roads upbringing and equally as proud of it. Damn proud, in fact.
The thirty-eight minute release begins with the assault of Hoarse from the Get Go. It tells you what’s about to go down and shows you where the exit is if you don’t like it. Cowards clearly inhabit a horrific dystopia. It’s evident in the unrelenting percussion and the drilling gurgle of the opener’s guitars; they herd you towards a jarring descent through chords in the middle third that sounds like falling off a succession of cliffs and is bored into you by the oppressive malcontent of the melody which closes.
Everything tells you that you are living in hell and there is only one way to end it.
Throughout Shooting Blanks… vocalist Julien H speaks of disillusionment and graphically portrays the ethically bankrupt and spiritually deceived that he sees around him. Whether this is uncovering a truth behind a universally rose-tinted city or merely embellishing his view by melding it with one of graphic novels and genre fiction is unclear but it’s impossible to shake either way.
His performance likely sits deep because he disregards his health in the name of conviction as he screams, growls and roars in a way that must cause him to wretch up his throat lining between each recording. Throat Ruiner Records did co-release this EP after all.
Successive listens uncovers a lot more than a one-note statement of condemnation as there is distinct variety to Cowards’ sound as well as confidence and passion. The thrash is continued on Arrogant, Unseen, but Vices and Hate expresses more punk virtues in its directness as the shortest track – which still clocks in at five and a half minutes.
While the unfamiliar won’t detect it, the subtlety in Cowards’ playing ensures a lasting creative spark. Scarce is their mission statement to capturing a successful and lengthy career (as an underground band, sure, but look at Napalm Death). It’s the biggest shake up of their style and it’s brilliantly left-field and yet so appropriate to the album as a whole it seems absolutely crucial. It’s a blues-inspired trudge through the emotional shades that would wash over you while in Cowards County staring at the glass maker’s etching at the bottom of a dirty pint glass.
At choice places in the instrumentation there are segments of spoken word lines that are so authentic they must be taken from a cult Noir film and these details cap off the perfect tone that’s created by the music. At the mid-way point in the record Scarce is what holds your tongue from the foolish mistake of labelling Cowards as yet another hardcore band.
In truth Scarce, and the equally as lengthy Grand Failure, would benefit from a strict editor but then again this would unwisely be considered by many stubborn rebels as an incongruous move towards commercialisation.
In fact, the most impressive thing about Cowards is this wholehearted embodiment of the band’s identity.
The promotional material from Throat Ruiner describes the release as “carrying smells of pissy streets and the dry blood you get for a sidelong glance” and, frankly, nothing could be more apparent in the music.
It’s not just the music that embodies this approach, though. Shooting Blanks and Pills is primarily released as a free download with the limited edition vinyl the only thing that’ll cost you. When Throat Ruiner’s roster sheet is headed with a manifesto that says their releases “are on free download because [they] believe music should live without boundaries” and is titled “F*CK LARS ULRICH1” you realise that only certain bands sign to that label.
Combine this with the self-effacing name; the record title that encapsulates their lowly context; and the borderline self-abhorrence in the connotations of sterility (shooting blanks) and it’s easy to see that the band certainly intend to stay very much grounded.
Cowards are defiantly wearing their social and financial status on their sleeves. It’s unashamedly displayed in the blur in the bass notes, the fuzz engulfing the vocals and the cymbals that ring just a little too long. Very few alternative bands have looked or sounded so credible in their anarchy.
With Shooting Blanks… the poor and the shunned should see a surge in the popularity of social stigma and the streets because, honestly, who wants to be thought of highly by a world as sh***y as this one?
1 A criticism of Ulrich’s vocal opposition to early file sharing site Napster (remember them?) and Metallica’s court battle against the site in 2000 over copyright infringement of their entire back catalogue. Footnote included just for those who have never heard of Metallica, early file sharing, the internet or anything else that’s relevant in this day and age – seriously people, what’s life like on hermit island?