Third Harmonic Distortion – S/T / Ex Animo

While I was (unsuccessfully) trying to prepare my reviews this weekend, my dad popped my copy of American Beauty into the VCR. Of course, my attention span being about as big as the average two-year-old’s, my brain quickly changed directions, and I watched the movie without a second thought of my futile attempts at CD reviews. I’ve always liked the Ricky Fitz character, just because he looks at things so much differently from everyone else in the movie. It seems like every time I catch part of this movie, I spend the next few days forcing myself to try to think “outside of the box” (to steal some advertising lingo) – to attempt to see things from many different perspectives.

Anyways, a later venture into web surfing brought me to a URL devoted to facts about depression and nervous breakdowns, and although I still have absolutely no idea how I got there, I was extremely intrigued with the information that I found. It got me to thinking … A physical representation of a nervous breakdown would certainly be a beautiful thing, with gears turning, pulleys churning and pistons pumping, all while workers are shoveling coal into giant furnaces that power the entire operation. Each individual action has it’s own purpose that grows in importance only when you take the collective effects of the separate activities and consume them as one giant, disconnected yet functional whole (much like a Rube Goldberg machine of the mind). Everything moves fluidly and seamlessly, gradually forcing the brain to work itself into a violently displaced state before simply giving up and shutting down with a long, tired groan. Although the effect this has on a person’s psyche is quite tragic and unnerving, it is a thing of sheer beauty to think about how perfect and intricately all occurrences must fall into place to create one of these moments – one of these beautiful tragedies, if you will.

Such is the music of Third Harmonic Distortion … Individual portions of songs are alternately terrifying, bruising, haunting and beautiful, while individual songs stand out as both grinding and hallucinogenic. While this in itself is admirable, what is truly remarkable is the amazing depth and power that the entire albums take on as wholes. Individual tracks and song passages aside, the whole of Third Harmonic Distortion’s releases is much greater than the sum of their parts.

THD’s self-titled 1997 debut featured coarse vocals tied with harsh dual-guitar psuedo-melodies that are both brutal and beautiful all at once. The disc’s song titles reflect a very military attitude, which is fitting, considering the varying cadences on the album. Much like a battlefield, the songs seem to be strategically structured. Listening to this disc is like walking through a minefield, with every song and atmosphere being a nervous and calculated step towards resolution. Each listen draws you further and further into the minefield until you find yourself unable to leave, drawn into the intrinsic beauty of the experience. The high point of the disc is the amazingly driving “Army Dodge,” quite possibly one of the few flawlessly performed songs in all of the history of music. A wicked lead rhythm guitar part, amazing backing rhythm stun guitars, and a terrifyingly brutal bass line combine with solid, cadence-like drumming and intense vocals to create an intense six-minute experience.

While the raw edge of the guitars and vocals from the first disc have been polished down a bit, Ex Amino still carries an air of spectacular intensity. “The Manhattan Projects” starts the disc off solidly enough with 2 ½ minutes of two-guitar stun rhythms before the thrashing off into a driving ending worthy of the first disc. “State of the Union” is a shorter, faster track, coming off like something from the Dischord Records label. The disc’s standout track, “Everybody Has a Beard,” runs through a lot of different territory. The track begins with a quiet-and-sweet-enough (dare I say, EMO) guitar part before grinding into a slow, distorted groove. The bridge to the chorus drives the song, and the chorus swells and flows with a wicked-slick lead guitar piece. Much like “Army Dodge,” this song defines the word intensity. Eventually, the chorus leads to a heavy and methodical droning breakdown with a nasty bass part. The vocals dip into mono territory here, almost sounding like a rant more than anything else (including a hilarious snippet about the vocalist’s distain for the city of Chicago) before building back to one final swoop at the chorus again … Damned amazing, I’m telling you.

The rest of the disc is just as solid. “Tissue” features a guitar arrangement that forces an uncomfortable feeling before launching into a heavy chorus that acts as the song’s redemption point, while “Headstrong” drives out of the gate quickly and doesn’t look back, slowing only to allow the song to wind to an end. “Mad Scientist” opens with another one of those slightly unnerving dual rhythm guitar parts before picking up the pieces through a smooth transgression into a heavier, more easily flowing chorus. The dual guitar parts after the second chorus here are downright heavenly. “Wolfgang” starts with a driving bassline before building around it with some intricate (yet intense) separate-but-equal guitar rhythms that have to be heard to believed, before finally kicking into the usual THD mode. The six-minute instrumental “Excessive Calm” starts off with restrained guitar tones and yet another cool rolling bassline before eventually building into a wall of guitars based around the original ‘quiet’ guitar parts. “Undersexed Scorpio” is probably the most ‘normal’ track on the disc, as the bass, drums and guitars sound simply typical at this point.

The disc’s final piece is a cover of Television’s “Marquee Moon.” THD really doesn’t stray much from the original here, doing a pretty literal note-for-note version of the original, complete with an attempt to even totally replicate Tom Verlaine’s guitar sound. Still, the effort is admirable, especially during the 2 ½ minute guitar solo break, which is just another shining example of how advantageous it is for a band to have two separate and distinct rhythm guitar players.

Is Ex Amino the best disc I’ve heard in ages? No, that distinction still falls to either the first THD disc or the White Stripes’ De Stijl. But I must still recommend either THD release to fans of intense, guitar driven music. The self-titled release would be best for fans of a more raw, live guitar/vocal sound, while Ex Amino would be better suited for listeners of more polished indie rock. While THD is best suited for all those late-night breakdowns, bands that are obviously this talented don’t grow on trees anymore. Give ’em a listen.