BAND: SWARRRM (Japan)
RELEASE: こわれはじめる – Beginning To Break (2018)
LABEL: LongLegsLongArms Records
REVIEWER: Arthur Urquiola
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Even though the raw and raunchy earlier material released shortly after their formation 22 years ago sounds worlds away from the more recent work, since early on Kobe, Japan’s SWARRRM has never been afraid to drag Grindcore through all sorts of weird and wonderful terrain. But unlike other wildly eclectic bands like Tokyo’s Paintbox who make use of arrangements and instrumentation (in Paintbox’s case, Van Halen solos and mariachi horns on 2009’s ‘Trip, Trance & Travelling’), SWARRRM has evolved their genre with boundless imagination and simply having the chops to pull off all sorts of fantastical ideas.
It’s worth investigating last year’s ’20Year Chaos’ compilation which collected material from a long string of eps, splits and compilation tracks and manages to showcase SWARRRM’s progression through the years without leaving the listener feeling like they’re being pulled in too many different directions. The collection was released through LongLegsLongArms Records, or 3LA, the label responsible for the release of SWARRRM’s newest record こわれはじめる or ‘Beginning To Break’.
‘Beginning To Break’ feels like somewhat of a watershed moment, even in SWARRRM’s long history. The use of melody has always been an integral part of what makes this band unique, but this release especially sounds like a record made in a post-Envy world. While the growls and blastbeats are still there and the tunes are packed with ideas, there’s also a certain concision across the tracks. None of the songs have the same density or sheer mournful grandiosity of 2007’s ‘Black Bong,’ one of the few grindcore records to feature songs which last longer than five minutes. ‘Beginning To Break’ is also less schizophrenic than 2014’s ‘Flower’, which had moments of beauty amid the brutality, particularly on the ballads that open the record, but whether this was an aesthetic choice or had to do with the circumstances in which it was recorded ‘Flower’ may have been a tough listen for some because it was mastered extremely loud. The drums in particular on that record were roasted by compression.
SWARRRM has been through four vocalists at last count, all of whom have brought a style described as both “tortured” and “cathartic” but each in their own unique way. Tsukasa Harakawa has worked with SWARRRM since 2007 and is hardly a new voice within the band, or in extreme Japanese music. Before SWARRRM he was the longtime singer in Death Metal legends Hellchild, who achieved some notoriety outside of Japan appearing on the ‘Deeper the Wound’ split with Converge (the first release on Jacob Bannon’s Deathwish Inc. label). Tsukasa has a distinctively guttural and instantly recognisable growl. On ‘Beginning To Break’ Tsukasa deploys a far greater use of melody than he ever has at any point in his prolific past. There’s a sense that an effort was made to complement what’s going on behind his voice, rather than having the vocals be a blunt and percussive component on top of the music. This adds a new dimension and the vocals evoke catharsis in a whole different way.
The shift from crushing and relentless heaviness towards a stronger focus on triumphant melodies has led to some standout moments. Lead single ‘愛のうた’ (‘Song for Love’) has an absolutely killer vocal hook in the refrain. For long time listeners of SWARRRM it’s shockingly beautiful. However this isn’t a bait and switch tactic and the song is a great introduction to ‘Beginning To Break’ and what SWARRRM is in 2018.
There are still plenty of other surprises – ‘夢から’ (‘From My Dream’) is a riff-driven rock song, with the band seemingly taking a totally different approach that breaks up the intensity, while showcasing the melodic twang which hadn’t previously characterised the sound of Kapo’s guitar nearly as much as it does on ‘Beginning To Break’. ‘血が叫ぶ’ (‘Crying of My Blood’) is the “breeziest” SWARRRM has ever sounded, and as is the case with many a SWARRRM song, it sounds like it was written by a completely different band. However, most songs this upbeat or “summery” aren’t usually as heavy, nor are they likely to feature Tsukasa’s unmistakable growl, which in this case sounds more like Paul Bearer from Sheer Terror’s melodic stylings on the Joe Coffee project.
‘Song For Love’ and the quasi title track which closes the record ‘Beginning to Break After You Hold Me’ had both previously appeared on last year’s split with Killie, albeit with a different mix and mastering. On this record, the climactic buildup at the end of ‘Beginning…’ also fades into a gentle acoustic passage, circling back to the exact opening chord at the very start of the record, which itself is a clever and disarmingly sweet single hit before mayhem ensues on the opener ‘ここは悩む場所じゃない’ (‘This is Not the Place to Have Dillema’).
Grindcore and Death Metal have never felt like terms which could adequately categorise an incomparable band like SWARRRM. But after more than 20 years the band doesn’t look to be defined by its own past either. ‘Beginning To Break’ is a fearless achievement by veterans who don’t concern themselves with the latest trends of any genre or the Punk Rock scene from which they came. Regardless of whether it’s ever dawned on them that they’re considered by many to be the kings of Japanese Grindcore, it doesn’t look like this was a factor in SWARRRM’s decision to create something that’s this emotive and completely singular in an already deep and varied discography.