Sometimes you can be aware of a band, even like their stuff, but not have that connection that turns a band from something you’re passively a fan of to something you actively seek out. When it comes to the pummeling sludge of -(16)-, that turning point came with 2020’s Dream Squasher, an album that squashed my dreams and sent me reeling, eventually landing on my end of year list for 2020. Rather than try to top that, new album Into Dust feels like the band stretching their leathery wings, trying for new sonic waves to inform their crushing brand of sludge and doom. No surprise that it works, but it’s a deeper, darker album that takes a few listens before you fall under the band’s specific spell.
It certainly kicks off with a bang, though. “Misfortune Teller” explodes in a mass of drums and power chords before settling into a sinister serpentine riff winding itself around guitarist/vocalist Bobby Ferry’s lyrics, narrating a harrowing story of someone kicked to the curb and forced to move in a land that wants nothing to do with them. It’s a frantic, pained attack, and Ferry’s cleaner approach to the vocals fit the more conceptual songs on Into Dust. The brief glint of southern blues swagger on “Dead Eyes” quickly turns into a violent barrage of noise that captures the feeling of helplessness or giving up. The chugging attack continues on “Ash in the Hourglass” before taking a plunge into the frozen waters with the brief interlude “The Deep.”
From there we get to the real core of what I love about the band. “Scrape the Rocks” is a devastating dirge, Ferry taking on a cleaner vocal performance that lifts up the massive weight of the song. It feels like struggle, and as the solo takes over you can feel as much as hear the turn in the song into something Alice in Chains would have pulled out circa the Dirt era. The transparent pain of that album feels like a touchstone here, and as Into Dust winds its way to its conclusion, that feeling of personal destruction and despair rears its head time and time again: in the stomp of “Null and Eternal Void,” in the Pantera-rasp of “The Floor Wins” and the mosh attack of “Dirt in Your Mouth.”
But it’s the closer, “Born On a Barstool” that really stands out, not only from the rest of Into Dust, but from the band’s output to date. Starting off with a barroom lounge intro, complete with whispered vocals and smooth saxophone the song quickly turns into a blistering punch to the cranium, as Ferry screams about the crushing need for alcohol and its terrible consequences. The circular riff feels like a shark getting closer and closer to taking your head off, and damn if that shattering chorus of “Raise your glass / All things pass / I was born on a barstool / I was born with a drink” doesn’t send chills down my spine each time it comes around.
So Into Dust may be more of a grower than its predecessor, but I find myself once again drawn into the way -(16)- can channel their anger and despair into something that resonates, finding the cracks in your bones and making its way into the marrow. That’s the kind of empathy I’m looking for from this kind of music, and I’m expecting many more long plays until I can get my hands on whatever comes next.